South Fayette kicks off ‘Inspire’ series with robotics

Published Jan 31, 2014 at 2:05 pm (Updated Jan 31, 2014 at 2:05 pm)

Technology and robotics was the theme of the first in a new speaker series at the South Fayette School District. With the help of the district’s director of technology, Aileen Owens, high school senior Brooke Ley is organizing a monthly speaker series called the “Inspire” series, which focuses on bringing in speakers to talk about opportunities in computer science with a special focus on opportunities for women.

“Mr. Kruth’s (South Fayette teacher Frank Kruth) tech club inspired me to go into the STEAM field,” Ley said.

The speaker series is something Ley must do as a participant in the She++ program, which is a program from Stanford University to inspire and empower women in fields of technology.

On Jan. 27, Naoka Gunawardena, a senior at the Ellis School in Pittsburgh, talked to a group of more than 100 South Fayette students and parents. Gunawardena is the daughter of Dr. Ananda Gunawardena, a professor of computer science currently teaching at Princeton University. Many of the students in attendance for the presentation were from the district’s intermediate school, which consists of students in grades 3-5. Principal Greg Wensell was also in attendance.

Naoka Gunawardena is a member of Girls of Steel, a FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) robotics team based in Pittsburgh. FIRST was founded about 20 years ago by inventor Dean Kamen.

As a part of Girls of Steel, Gunawardena’s team designs, builds and programs a robot to complete tasks in competition. For instance, the team has a robot that can shoot basketballs and one that can throw Frisbees. Gunawardena works on the mechanical side of the robots and plans to attend Yale University in the fall to study mechanical engineering.

Gunawardena started off her presentation by asking students in attendance what they thought a robot was. Several students answered that it was made of metal, able to be programmed and could be told what to do via controls. She handed out robots made from a 3D printer to students who answered the question.

Gunawardena said she was first taught that a robot was anything that had a sensor on it and senses what’s around it and reacts to its surroundings.

“By this definition, it could be the automatic sink in the bathroom,” she said.

Gunawardena said she first became interested in robotics when she was 8 years old. She said she saw that a girl had invented a robot alarm clock called “Clocky” that rolled off of a table whenever it rang.

After that, her parents bought her Lego Mindstorms and she programmed that on her own. She encouraged students who have an interest in technology and robotics to join after-school programs or go to camps on the subject.

Gunawardena attended a summer academy at the University of Pennsylvania and also worked as a marketing intern at Astrobotic, a company that is designing a lunar rover that should be operational by next year.

As a member of Girls of Steel, Gunawardena helped make a more than 100-pound robot named Watson that competed in an international competition where it had to shoot basketballs into a hoop.

“Robotics is a mixture of a lot of things, which is why I love it,” she said.

Now she’s known to her friends as “The Robot Girl.”

“I’ve loved growing into the title of The Robot Girl,” Gunawardena laughed.

Owens said that teaching technology to students helps them “gain the characteristics of successful problem solvers.” She added that nearly 800 students are involved in programming and other technology-based in-school and after-school programs. That number comes from both South Fayette students as well as outreach to other schools like Fort Cherry, Quaker Valley, the Manchester Academy Charter School and the Mars Area School District. Many of the district’s initiatives are possible because of grants received from the Grable Foundation and the Sprout Fund.

Through its curriculum and after-school programs, Owens said, “We’ve brought our students from learners to mentors.”

The next Inspire speaker series will be held in February and the guest speaker will be from Schell Games.

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