With professional backgrounds in subjects such as engineering, computer science, robotics and physics, the three directors of Robochallenge are taking time out of their schedules to play with LEGOs.

Robochallenge – an outreach program designed to provide educationally underserved K-12 students with exposure to robotics, engineering, electronics and computer science – allows students to compete in team challenges with LEGO robots they create. The program also attempts to foster a desire among the kids to go to a university, said Luke Laurie, a co-director of Robochallenge and eighth grade physical science teacher at El Camino Junior High in Santa Maria.

Funded by a UCSB faculty outreach grant, Robochallenge is a collaborative project organized by Laurie, Brad Paden, professor of mechanical and environmental engineering at UCSB, and Bob Cota, activities coordinator of UCSB’s mathematics, engineering and science achievement program, commonly known as MESA.

Currently, Robochallenge works with approximately 150 students and 10 teachers from nine public schools. Additional participants from Ventura College, Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria and UCSB recently joined the program as well. Students’ robots engage in a variety of competitions including a tug-of-war, sumo wrestling, and a drag race.

“[Robochallenge is] a non-intimidating way to engage [young students] in design, teamwork and fun,” Cota said.

The program is a valuable tool for introducing young students to the concept of higher education, Laurie said.

“Students need to learn programming, design and mechanics to build a good robot. By bringing in students who have capable minds, who could use a creative, constructive outlet … [and] allowing them to meet university students, and exposing them to technical fields, we are opening their eyes to the world of higher education,” Laurie said.

On May 4, UCSB’s Science and Technology Day, Robochallenge combatants will engage in their final competition. Each student team will gather and compete in several events.

“In a time when many children are getting video game consoles that can cost nearly $400, sap hours of time, and have little academic value, we could do our children a favor and get them something that is perhaps far more entertaining and very intellectually challenging,” Laurie said.

Robochallenge began three years ago in response to Proposition 209, a California initiative that eliminated affirmative action in November of 1996. In an attempt to encourage minorities to continue applying to UCSB, the university began seeking new methods of recruitment, Paden said.

“[I was] teaching a robotics course and … decided to relay it over to an elementary school level,” Paden said.

Paden enlisted the help of other teachers and professors in establishing the project.

“I met with Professor Paden and discussed ideas that he and others had for a program that would reach younger students with LEGO robotics,” Laurie said. “Bob and Brad began collaborating and looking for teachers to participate.”

Laurie assumed a leadership role by expanding on curriculum ideas and helping to recruit teachers from other public schools.

After writing a proposal for Robochallenge, the collaborators received a faculty outreach grant of $155,000 and began to invest their time in educationally underserved communities.

“The funding provides for stipends, materials, transportation and other costs necessary to run the events,” Laurie said.