Pirate has international impact through internship

In a football field house full of chatter East Carolina University senior Meghan Lower gathers a group of high school students at local C.M. Eppes Middle School.

While the room traditionally houses football helmets and pads, each winter the room is transformed into work benches and design hubs as a pair of Pitt County robotics clubs revamps the space to build engineering marvels.

Pitt Pirates Robotics Club drive coach mentor Lucas Gresham (left) and South Central High School junior Victor Pagona discuss robot design possibilities at a club meeting.

Lower, an EC Scholar member, knew her love for science education would lead her into undiscovered territories, but she never imagined that a simple internship would give her the chance to build robots and affect students across the globe.

Lower is a junior mentor for the Pitt Pirates Robotics Club – a group of nearly 40 high school students from across Pitt County that builds robots and competes against other teams both statewide and nationally. Lower currently serves as a marketing and safety mentor, but her passion for robotics began when she interned for the club, helping the team integrate Next Generation Science Standards into its robotics programs.

“I’m double majoring in science education and chemistry,” Lower said. “My brother, Matt, is a member of the club, and an opportunity arose where they needed help at the internship level. I have the utmost passion for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education and working with the robotics team has given me an outlet to share my love for science with others.”

Sumo Wrestling Robots
One of Lower’s first tasks was revamping the club’s outreach program RoboxSumo. The program was developed in 2013 and introduces STEM concepts to students in a readily-scalable and reproducible environment. The program tasks students with building carboard robots that compete against one another in a one-on-one match in an attempt to push the other competitor’s robot out of bounds within a set time limit.

The program offers students low barriers of entry to robotics building because of its cost, simple building components and adaptability.

As part of her internship, Lower introduced Next Generation Science Standards into the RoboxSumo program at the elementary, middle and high school grade levels. These content standards ensure that students participating in the program are building a cohesive understanding of science at a national level.

“We saw an opportunity to add more advanced work for our program participants,” Lower said. “RoboxSumo is a great program because you can always ramp up the difficulty depending on the age level. However, we wanted to advance the program, so we created lesson plans and a teacher manual so that participants receive the greatest level of science education that we can provide.”

The program has been a success at the local, state and national level, having been used in 24 North Carolina counties, multiple states and international locations as far away as Nicaragua and Turkey. The club recently connected with a team from Turkey that used the program to teach Syrian refugees that fled their country during its ongoing civil war.

“The team from Turkey reached out to us after seeing the RoboxSumo program online,” Lower said. “We thought it would be a great opportunity to collaborate with an international team and to reach students who are unable to attend a regular school.

“I’d never worked with any kind of international group before,” she said. “We were able to help students continue their education in a nontraditional school setting. I think that’s the great thing about RoboxSumo ­– you can practice these educational concepts anywhere as long as you can access one of the kits. I’m excited about the opportunities the refugees have to continue their education and learn about robotics. It just goes to show how dedicated science educators are. They’re still trying to make a difference even in the most extreme circumstances.”

Lasting Impact
Lead Pitt Pirates Robotics mentor Ann McClung, who also serves as ECU’s science coordinator at the College of Education’s Center for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Education, said Lower has made an impact on the club’s students.

“Meghan has really been a great influence with the team,” McClung said. “Her passion for science education has really taken our program to the next level for documentation and validating a lot of our curriculum. Her expertise has been really beneficial to us.

“There is a need for science educators,” she said. “We need students, like Meghan, to consider science education as a career choice. It’s beneficial and rewarding and really makes a difference. I know it’s allowed Meghan to share her love and passion for science.”

McClung added that Lower will have a lasting impact on the team and the way it approaches future program development.

“She’s changed the way we look at developing new innovations and curriculums within the program,” she said. “Meghan has a bug for science and she’s shared that with the team. When we have students and junior mentors like Meghan bring new excitement to the program, it lifts all of us up.”

Lower said that her advice to other students considering internships with programs a little outside of the their comfort zone was to go for it “without any hesitation.”

“This has been the greatest internship experience because I’ve helped students find their niche in science,” Lower said. “There’s a place for everyone. I’ve watched kids that you would never expect be bold and outgoing in this program. You don’t realize the impact a program has on students and the community until you’re part of it.”

The Pitt Pirates Robotics club is currently preparing for its 2019 season. This year’s theme is Destination: Deep Space. The team will be tasked with building a robot that carries cargo pods to a rocket ship on a planet with unpredictable terrain. The team will compete at district events with the goal of qualifying for April’s 2019 international World Championship event in Houston, Texas.

Learn more about the Pitt Pirate Robotics team and its 2019 season online.

A group of Pitt Pirates Robotics Club members draw designs for the club’s newest robot.