HCC-Brandon To Serve as a hub for BEST Robotics

Robots are everywhere. From tracking migration of sharks, to conducting high-precision, minimally invasive surgeries, serving as companions for the elderly and autistic children, to performing daily tasks like vacuuming and folding laundry, robots are increasingly becoming a part of our daily lives. As robotic footprints on industrial and every day operations become increasingly defined, emphasis on a changing workforce and subsequent required skills set is assuming greater prominence in the workplace. “Robots in the workplace are going to be so ubiquitous” says Ken Fiallos, president of the Florida Robotics Alliance (FRA) and Chair of the Tampa Bay Chapter for IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) Robotics and Automation.

Given the impending reality of a fundamental alteration in the workplace, Fiallos strongly believes “the skills set of the average person for the future is going to need a robotics familiarity component.” As a retired engineer and a proponent for integrating robotics, science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) into everyday curriculum, Fiallos heads several projects designed to expand robotics education in the greater Tampa Bay region. Latest among these is the Florida West Coast BEST (FWC BEST) at Hillsborough Community College (HCC) in Brandon.

Boosting Engineering, Science and Technology (BEST) initiative is the project of the Florida Robotics Alliance (FRA) targeted to fulfill the mission of increasing robotic educational opportunities for students in the Tampa Bay region. BEST is a six weeks robotics program designed to engage, excite and inspire middle and high school students to pursue STEM-based careers. “Children love competition” says Fiallos. To that effect, BEST taps into children’s innate affinity and ability to compete. Using a fun and competitive platform, the program seeks to trigger a passion for STEM.

Initial kindling of this effort is already underway. FWC BEST in partnership with FLATE—the National Science Foundation Center of Excellence in Manufacturing at HCC-Brandon is poised to serve as a regional hub, or a focal point for hosting several robotics competitions and workshops for students as well as educators in the Tampa Bay region. As host organizations, FLATE and HCC will open their facility which includes a manufacturing laboratory for FWC BEST to showcase high-tech equipment used in modern manufacturing facilities, and provide students as well as educators an opportunity to gain hands-on experience using 3D printers, CNC machines, and laser cutters.

The overarching focus is to help students and educators develop a “Silicon Valley entrepreneurial” mind-set, and introduce them to more modern/high-tech methods of manufacturing. “We are about reaching and educating the masses, and equipping them with some entrepreneurial incentives and business skills/knowledge that will help students realize STEM can create a business way of life” Fiallos said. Together with FLATE, the engineering technology program at HCC, the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa, the School District of Hillsborough County, Robofest of St.Petersburg, FL, and Learning is for Everyone, FWC BEST is well on its way to hosting two workshops for educators; one in March, the other in April 2013.

“Introduction to BEST Robotics” Workshop will be held on March 20, and will be offered free of cost to all Hillsborough County public school teachers, administrators and alliance partners. The workshop will also serve as a vehicle in training educators/administrators for the BEST robotics competition for students in October 2013. It will introduce educators to the BEST robotics program, familiarize them with robotics hardware and fabrication, as well as give them an opportunity to work with the VEX micro controller programming software.

During the workshop, participants will be programming robots. They will be exposed to Robot C and Easy C. Robot C is essentially a statement based programming language where, for example, you have several statements to address/define where a motor is located/connected. Easy C, rather than dealing directly with statements, has a graphical interface that allows the statements to be generated behind the scenes. So this is for the control of the robot. In terms of building the robot, workshop participants will be designing parts using either AutoCAD inventor, or open S-CAD to generate the necessary design files.

Following the workshop in March, FWC BEST is also planning to offer a second half-day workshop on April 6 for high school and college students. Learning Your ABCs (Arduino Breadboarding Circuits)—the title of the workshop—represents an endeavor to introduce students to the basic electrical concepts of voltage, current, resistance, and use of multimeters. Students will also learn the fundamentals of using an Arduino Micro Controller for making measurements, breadboard-pro-typing techniques used to construct circuits and microcontroller programming techniques.

“We want to get away from the hand-tool approach” says Fiallos. Educators, he says, need to understand that the nature of the workplace is changing. To that effect, the workshop seeks to help educators prepare students to capture opportunities that are being presented as a result of technological advancements. All things considered, “we want participants to leave the workshop with better understanding of robotics,” and “confidence that this experience will yield results with measurable metrics” Fiallos said.

For more information on FWC BEST, or upcoming robotics workshops contact Ken Fiallos at ken@tampabay.rr.com, or visit www.floridaroboticsalliance.org. For information on FLATE’s robotics program and upcoming summer camps for middle and high school students contact Dr. Marilyn Barger, executive director of FLATE at barger@fl-ate.org, or visit www.fl-ate.org and www.madeinflorida.org.