Credit: Daniel Burke , Daniel Burke

A RoboMentor is not exactly what it sounds like. Rather than a futuristic robot personal guru, it’s a Penn engineering student who advises local high school students in robotics competitions.

Penn Science Across Ages and Penn’s General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception Laboratory, commonly known as the GRASP Lab, are teaming up to recruit Penn students to become RoboMentors to high school students around the city this spring.

While Penn students have worked with local robotics teams in the past, the RoboMentor program is the first structured program with the same intent. For at least two hours a week, Penn students will work with high school teams to help them create their robot for either the FIRST Tech Challenge or the FIRST Robotics Competition — national high school robotics tournaments.

The RoboMentor program is a part of US2020 PHL, a nationwide mentoring initiative developed by the White House, whose goal is to have one million STEM mentors working with youth by 2020. Philadelphia is one of seven cities selected to take part in the national initiative.

Co-president of Penn Science Across Ages Jeffrey Ng said PSAA — a student group that hosts local science programs — was looking to expand its involvement in technology-based programs and found this program to be a perfect fit for their mission. The program targets schools that lack resources for their robotics teams to do well. While some teams might have a dedicated faculty coach, the coach might not have the technical background to help the team succeed. That’s where Penn students come in.

Engineering sophomore Margaret Nolan signed up to become a RoboMentor after participating in the FIRST competition while in high school. “You gain valuable life skills,” she said. “It’s a confidence building experience.”

Nolan already works as a mentor with PSAA in Upward Bound, a Penn college-prep program for low-income high school students. As an engineer who worked on robotics in high school, she hopes to draw on her past experiences to help the team with which she is placed. “With robotics it’s a really overwhelming process. I just want to be useful,” she said.

The toughest thing about growing a program like RoboMentors is the fact that expertise is needed, though anyone can apply to be a mentor, Ng explained. “It’s not something that any Arts and Sciences person with no engineering background can go into and provide a valuable experience,” he said.

The relationship between the Penn students and the high school students is a big component of mentoring, said Associate Director for Education and Outreach for the GRASP Lab Daniel Ueda. “[The high school students] get to realize the potential for going to college and start believing in themselves that they can go to college,” he said.

Having worked as a teacher in Brooklyn, N.Y. and Philadelphia for 11 years before starting at the GRASP Lab, Ueda knows how problematic budget shortfalls can be for public school students. For Penn students, he said, “the more exposure they get to that, the more they appreciate and understand the problems that exist in Philadelphia education.”

Both Ng and Ueda mentioned travel as one of the biggest hurdles for mentors, as several schools are far outside the “Penn bubble.” Ueda said many of those schools are exactly the ones that would benefit most. “They do tend to struggle a lot because they don’t get a lot of support. I’m going to try my hardest to get a mentor to go to each of the schools that are farther,” he said.

So far, the schools definitely working with RoboMentors in the spring are the Science Leadership Academy and Masterman, Central, Carver, Friere Charter and Northeast high schools — though several other schools are potentially going to be included.

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