Feature Stories

NJIT Helps Newark Students Build Robots—and Confidence

Newark's Central High School students participate in the NJ FIRST robot contest.

The Fed Ex truck came at dusk to pick up the robots.

The robot designers – two teams of high school students – had spent a tense day in an NJIT lab assembling the robots. Their anxiety, though, was eased by a group of NJIT students.

For the past six weeks, the NJIT students have mentored nine high school teams from Newark. The teams had come to NJIT every day after school to work with their NJIT mentors and build their robots.

The teams are competing in a robot contest called NJ FIRST. The contest, set for March 1 in Trenton and Manhattan, draws teams from across the state. During the contest, the student-made robots must pick up tubes and hang them over 10-foot-tall racks. Teams whose robots succeed are invited to the national competition held in Atlanta on April 12.

All teams are encouraged to have mentors. At NJIT, the mentoring program is run jointly by the Center for Pre-College Programs and the Division of Career Development Services. Two NJIT graduate students trained 25 other student mentors. NJIT lab technicians also helped the students, and the university let them use its engineering labs.

While here, the Newark students learned how to design, program and wire the robots. They learned about electronics, relays and binary codes as well as how to operate lathe machines and drill presses. The students come from one of the state’s poorest school districts, but with NJIT behind them, they aim to win.

“My school doesn’t have machines like this,” said Karron Franks, a junior at Central High School, as he swept his eyes over the machine-filled NJIT lab. “But with help from NJIT, we can beat the rich schools. Those suburban schools have money, but we have heart.”

Heart they had, in abundance, but they needed academic help. And that’s where the NJIT mentors came into play.

Delis Santana, an NJIT senior, said he and other mentors taught the students vital skills such as how to schedule work, meet deadlines and concentrate on tasks.

“They viewed us mentors as role models,” Santana said, “and in that respect this program was for them a bridge to a better future.”

The biggest fear the students had to overcome was math, said Kiran Karunakaran, an NJIT graduate student who on this day mentored the East Side High team.

“Sadly their schools lack resources, so the students needed assistance with basic math,” Karunakaran said. “They were frightened of simple fractions and they wanted me to tell them the values. But I helped them work the math out themselves.”

The students, however, excelled at the hands-on work, said Karunakaran. They were also dedicated and worked well in teams. Teamwork is essential to designing a robot, she added, and the students who work best together commonly win the contest.

But, in a real sense, this is a contest without losers. It’s a contest that, in the end, is less about designing robots and more about creating college students.

Jack Gidney is a technician who runs NJIT’s Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering lab. Most of the teams worked in his lab.

Gidney, who humbly calls himself a “nuts and bolts guy,” has been helping the Newark students for 10 years. NJIT started off mentoring one Newark team. Now it mentors nine. This year, due to a bureaucratic delay, the robot kits were delivered to the students late, Gidney said. So he often left the lab at 10:30 p.m. By his own admission, he’s left the lab feeling “drained.”

“But every minute,” he added, “was worth it.”

For during the past six weeks Gidney witnessed the magic of transformation at work. He saw the looks on the faces of the students as they learned, first-hand, what a college campus is like. He watched as they got to know college students – their tutors – well and learned what it’s like to be a college student. And he saw their fears -- of math, of engineering, of college – slowly fade away.

“It’s fantastic to see how their attitude towards college changes,” said Gidney. “They come to NJIT fearful and they leave confident. They come here with attitude and they leave giving me hugs. I love them. I really do. They are great kids.”

Gidney has seen his hard work pay off.

Four years ago, 11 seniors from the Technology High School robot team were admitted to NJIT, Gidney recalled, sounding like a proud parent. Those students are all seniors now at NJIT, and some of them work as mentors in the robot program -- the bridge that ushered them into NJIT.

“To see that change happen in these kids, to see them go from scared high school kids to bright college students,” Gidney said. “It’s just amazing.”

(By Robert Florida, University Web Services)