Science and Technology News

Monday, November 17, 2014

Reservist encourages learning through robotics

by Maj. Marnee A.C. Losurdo
403rd Wing Public Affairs


11/14/2014 - KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. -- When Lt. Col. Frank Poukner isn't flying an aircraft into a hurricane to collect weather data for the National Hurricane Center, he devotes part of his free time to encourage Mississippi Gulf Coast youth to take an interest in science and math by working with Legos.

This was the case Nov. 8 when he judged the First Lego League robotics competition at St. Patrick High School in Biloxi, Mississippi. There were 13 teams from schools in Jackson, Biloxi, Gulfport and Ocean Springs, Mississippi, competing in the qualifying event.

FLL, developed in 1999, consist of teams comprised of 8 to 10 students ages 9 to 14. The children face engineering challenges by building programmable, rolling robots out of LEGOs, which must complete specified tasks.

Poukner, a 403rd Wing reservist and pilot in the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, became involved with the program about four years ago as his two sons joined the robotics team. His oldest son, now 18 and in college, was a member of the St. Patrick's team and now mentors the team. Poukner's youngest son, 16, is a member of the St. Patrick's team competing in the U.S. FIRST Robotics Competition for high school students.

"It's a great program. It introduces the students to science, technology, engineering and math," said Poukner. "It's rewarding to see their thought process and how they develop these unique ideas to accomplish the program's objectives."

As part of the competition, each fall, FLL issues a challenge based on a real-world scientific topic. Past challenges have dealt with topics ranging from nanotechnology to the quality of life for the handicapped, exposing students to potential careers in these areas, according to the FLL website. Each challenge consists of three parts which are the robot game, project and core values. Teams are judged on each of these areas at competitions, said Poukner.

The robotics game takes place on a specially designed table with six-inch high border walls and a field mat. Teams receive construction kits prior to the competition to build their robots and program them for mission scenarios that must be accomplished in a certain manner on the field mat to earn points. Only one robot and two team members are allowed at the table during a match. The robot has two-and-a-half minutes to accomplish a 10-obstacle course on the table.

The FLL core values focus on teamwork, learning together, friendly competition and professionalism, according to the FLL website. Judges observe the teams in action and interview them to see how they functioned as a team.

For the Nov. 8 competition, Poukner judged teams on their project. This year's project challenged students to come up with better or more innovative ways to help someone learn, said Poukner. Teams pick a topic, create a solution and share what they have learned with others by creating a website or presenting to a professional group, according to the FLL website. The teams then present their project at the tournament.

Poukner said he was very impressed with the Jackson Preparatory School team's project. They won an award for their efforts.

"They have an outreach program that works with a school for the deaf and developed a website that helps parents with their deaf children by helping them with sign language," said Poukner. "Also, they donated last year's robot to the school and taught the students at the school how to use it. They are learning but also giving back to the community."

The team from the Nativity Blessed Virgin Mary elementary school in Biloxi won the overall competition and is one of six teams to move on to the state competition in Vicksburg, Mississippi, Dec. 20.

However, the event isn't all about winning. It's about learning, said Poukner. It's for this reason, that he said he became a National Defense Education Program robotics coordinator for Keesler Air Force Base.

In 2011, Poukner's former 53rd WRS co-worker, Roy Cloud, a C-130 flight engineer who is now retired and an FFL coach, approached him about the program.

"He said that Keesler did not have a coordinator and NDEP robotics grants were available and would I consider being the coordinator; I agreed," he said. As the robotics coordinator he assists local schools with obtaining NDEP grants to fund teams to participate in robotics competitions. NDEP gave robotics grants to 112 U.S. teams in 2011, and in 2014, that number grew to 430 teams nationally, he said.

The NDEP program's goal is to build the future workforce of scientists, mathematicians, and engineers for the Department of Defense by supporting science and math programs at the elementary, middle and high school, and college levels, according the NDEP website. NDEP emphasizes hands-on learning, which is why it sponsors K-12 robotics teams participating in the US FIRST Robotics Competitions or FIRST Tech Challenge for high school students and the FFL or Junior FIRST LEGO League for elementary and middle school students.

NDEP grant sponsorship requires a DoD workforce volunteer to be identified as a coach or mentor for each team, said Poukner.  Coaches, such as Cloud who is responsible for three teams, are to inspire the students about science, technology and engineering. They guide teams in developing their goals and project timelines, schedule meetings, and serve as a liaison between team member's parents, volunteers and mentors. Mentors are role models and subject matter experts who work with the teams in his or her area of expertise. They also help educate team members about potential careers.

"My role as the NDEP coordinator is only a small part of this," said Poukner. "The coaches, teachers, parents and volunteers are the ones who make it all happen and insure the success of these programs."

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