Presenters chart students' path from K to rocket science

Austin, TX. Inspiring and preparing the next generations of innovators was the theme of the concluding keynote session of NIWeek. Presenters ranging from Pernille France of LEGO to Leland Melvin of NASA elaborated on their efforts to engage students, while teams from Rice University and a local Austin high school demonstrated their capabilities. Roboticist Red Whittaker concluded by describing competition for the Google Lunar XPRIZE.

The 19th century English philosopher Herbert Spencer was also represented. His quote “The great aim of education is not knowledge but action” was illuminated onscreen as National Instruments VP Ray Almgren took the stage to open the session. Almgren elaborated on the quote: “The educational system bombards students with rote memory,” he said, driving potential future innovators out of STEM subjects in droves. He asked rhetorically, “Is it fair that we don’t let students do engineering?”

It's not fair, and it's not practical, either. Employers want to hire entry-level employees who are job-ready, Almgren said, and the current system is deficient in delivering graduates that meet the requirements. What's needed, he said, is a way to propel students from K to rocket science.

Pernille France, senior director of the LEGO Foundation, then took the stage. “LEGO Education,” she said, “has more than 30 years experience in understanding how children learn. We believe that a hands-on approach is enabling students to understand and take care of their own learning process.”

She said a stigma is attached to failure in society in general and the classroom in particular. But, she said, “Think about inventors. They have failed far more often than they have succeeded.” But they have learned from their failures to become successful.

Today's students, she said, are encouraged to find one answer, “but in the real world we need more than one answer. LEGO Education wants students to fail and fail often—it's an important part of creative and innovative process. Failing offers opportunity to learn.”

In the future, she added, it will not enough be to teach students content. “We need to teach them to learn process skills that will help them come up with surprising and innovative solutions to new problems.” The ability to surprise and innovate will be critical, she suggested, because 65% of children today will grow up to have jobs that haven't been invented yet.

“We do feel an obligation to prepare the creative problem solvers of tomorrow,” she said, adding that the new MINDSTORMS EV3 platform will “enable students to build, create, program, and fail—and then build, create, program, and succeed.” The new platform, she said, “was built with feedback from more than 800 educators around the world enabling us to launch a full teaching solution.”

NI senior product manager Nicole Richard then took the stage to describe NI's software contribution to the platform. The developers looked at NI's current continuum of offerings up to and including LabVIEW, she said, pulling features together in an age-appropriate way.

Testifying to the success of the project, 10-year-old beta-tester David took the stage and demonstrated a robotic guard dog named Znap that he had built and programmed. He declared the MINDSTORMS EV3 “Awsome!” It lets him get his programming done much faster and is easier to use than the previous version.

Almgren then returned to the stage to discuss NI's participation in FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC). Praising the program, he noted that virtually all FRC participants graduate from high school, nearly 90% attend college, and FRC participants that do attend college are three times more likely to study technical subjects than non-FRC participants.

He then introduced FRC Team 2468 from Westlake High School in Austin. Three members of the team demonstrated their robot, which could rapidly fire Frisbees at a goal.

On seeing the demonstration, Almgren suggested that the robot could shoot an apple off someone's head. An apple not apparently available on stage, the robot proceeded to shoot a plastic bottle off Almgren's head to the tune of the William Tell Overture.

The team concluded by noting their efforts to repay the community for mentoring them by helping mentor middle-school and elementary robotics teams, going so far as to travel to Nigeria to assist a team there.

Almgren followed up by introducing the NI roboRIO controller, which will be available to students participating in the FIRST Robotics Competition beginning in the 2015 season.

STEM Evangelist On and Off the Planet

Leland Melvin, associate administrator of education at NASA, next took the stage. Almgren described the engineer and astronaut as the foremost evangelist for STEM education on or off the planet. Although the Space Shuttles have been retired from space, they now have a new mission, Melvin said, providing inspiration and motivation in museums.

Melvin commented on his long familiarity with NI. When he started working at NASA, he said, he was using LabVIEW 1.0. A look to the past inspired him to think about students in audience—they will be the next generation of explorers, whether astronauts walking on Mars or engineers building robots that will travel to other planets. “We must give students what they need to be empowered,” he said, adding that it's important to give kids the kinds of hands-on activity that will enable them to make connections with the physical world.

Melvin's own early experience with a chemistry set—an experiment that resulted in him burning a hole in his mother's carpet—provided a clear connection to the physical world for him, he said. He got a spanking for that, he added, but it was worth it, because it solidified his desire to be a chemist.

He cited several programs in which students build experiments for deployment in space—”We've even had LEGO bricks in space,” he said—or otherwise collaborate with astronauts, by programming mining tasks in orbit, for example. He cited various outreach efforts, including the transmission of's “Reach for the Stars” from Mars by the Curiosity rover to students gathered at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He encouraged attendees to visit for more information.

It takes a village to raise tomorrow's innovators, and we all should be part of that village, Melvin concluded.

Unleashing LabVIEW RIO architecture on students

The session then turned to university-level work. Almgren noted that NI introduced about two years ago NI myDAQ—a product that, he said, “let's students do engineering anywhere, anytime, not just in the classroom.” Over the two years, he said, 600 universities have adopted it. And now, he said, NI is “pleased to be able to unleash the LabVIEW RIO architecture on students worldwide” in the form of NI myRIO, which lets users learn on the platform they will see in industry when they graduate.

Professor Marcia O'Malley and students James French and Chad Rose of Rice University described their beta-site use of the new product.

Professor O'Malley said she teaches a required mechanical engineering course on system dynamics, in which students develop mathematical models of mechanical and electrical systems and learn techniques for solving differential equations and analyzing time-domain response. She noted that prerequisites include courses in calculus and physics, but students have little real-world experience.

A haptic force feedback system serves as the centerpiece in her hands-on course. Students have to acquire sensor data in real time and command a motor.  She said that 10 years ago she partnered with NI to obtain a PXI platform to power the system, although the programming and system integration requirements were a bit over head of undergraduate students. The PXI platform became a black box that teaching assistants demonstrated while the students just sat there.

In contrast, she said, myDAC was far more student-friendly and could experiments with sensor and motor calibration, but it did not support closed-loop control. But now, myRIO, she said, “becomes a single accessible platform for every lab in the course”—coupling the simple out-of-the box experience of myDAQ with reconfigurable I/O.

Student French commented that last fall the students probably had less LabVIEW programming experience than 10-year-old David, the MINDSTORMS beta tester who presented earlier in the session. Consequently, he was happy that students could use a formula node for functions with which they felt more comfortable using scripting. He cited a smooth migration from myDAQ to myRIO.

Student Rose described the haptic paddle system as a one degree-of-freedom system consisting of a DC motor actuator, Hall-effect sensor, and permanent magnet with the top of the two paddles serving as the user interface. Students can input a position on one paddle, and the other follows.

Students can implement two configurations, Rose said. First is a master-slave format, where the master wouldn't know if the slave encountered some blockage or resistance that prevented it from mimicking the motion of the master. A simple click of a button on a software VI engages the second, master-master, configuration, which incorporates bilateral communication in which both paddles send and receive information. With this system, feedback enables an operator of one paddle to feel what's happening on the second paddle. Students can change control gains on the fly to see the resulting performance improvements or degradation and study first- and second-order responses.

Looking to Claim the Google Lunar XPRIZE

Red Whittaker of CMU and Astrobotic Technology concluded the session by describing efforts to claim the Google Lunar XPRIZE. He described the evolution of field robots from the time they were used to clean up Three Mile Island. Outdoor work machines, he said, are masters of mobility indispensible for applications including farming and mining.

He described them as employing great technology—they are authentically autonomous, with no communications in and out. “If something goes wrong you can't send AAA into abandoned mines.”

He also described the history of prizes for technology achievements, starting with the Orteig Prize, $25,000 claimed by Charles Lindbergh for flying nonstop from New York City to Paris.

“These prizes are never about the money,” Whittaker said, “but when somebody gives you a $2 million check, you do cash it.” He said he is looking forward to cashing a nice check a little over two years from now. His mission to claim the prize is scheduled to launch October 19, 2015.

He then introduced Griffin, the lander that will safely and precisely deliver a rover and other payloads to the lunar surface in pursuit of the Google Lunar XPRIZE. A lander, he said, is fundamentally a robot with rockets. A unique feature is visual servoing navigation employing cameras—a technique essential for pinpoint landing. Apollo missions were to get within 13 km of a target, he said, while Griffin will land in space smaller than the auditorium in which he was speaking.

He noted that his team has partnered with NI for LabVIEW FPGA technologies, noting that FPGAs tend to be radiation-tolerant while delivering the necessary blazing computational speed. He also cited the efficiency of developing in the LabVIEW environment.

At the close of the session, Whittaker invited attendees onto the stage to get a close-up view of Griffin, saying, “It's uncommon that you can step up and touch something that will then fly and be on another planet for eternity.”

Editor's note: You can view the presentations at

More in Home