UTA alums receive NSF small-business grant to spur K-12 STEM interest through technology


A team of UTA engineering and business school graduates is designing a hands-on, reconfigurable Build-Teach-Play Robots package to stimulate STEM learning in kindergarten through 12th grades.

The team founded a company called TechComb LLC in late 2014 and is repurposing manufacturing robotic technology from labs at The University of Texas at Arlington Research Institute to create these simple, less expensive tools for engaged learning.

The project is supported by a $150,000 Small Business Innovation Research grant from the National Science Foundation. The federal program seeks to transform scientific discovery into societal and economic benefit by catalyzing private sector commercialization of technological innovations.

U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, applauded the UTA Research Institute's team commitment to K-12 STEM education and the innovative approach to sharing insight into robotics and programming.

"We need to give students every opportunity early in life to understand that they, too, can succeed in careers in robotics, engineering, computer science and all the disciplines that support these fields," Veasey said. "It's wonderful to see UTA faculty, former students and staff members reaching out and connecting with the educational and small business communities through hands-on technology like this."

Aditya Das, UTA Research Institute senior research scientist and TechComb co-founder, said, they saw the demand to engage students from their earliest years in robotics and programming.

"We wanted to give them opportunities to learn the possibilities that exist when you assemble and program robotic devices," Das said. "Our goal is to expose them to pathways to careers in science, technology, math and engineering fields because not only are these fields fun but they also reflect our future workforce needs."

The concept of Build-Teach-Play Robots is to:

  • Build — Students will assemble robotic blocks that create a functional robotic arm with pick-and-place capabilities.
  • Teach — Students will control the robotic device to do various activities, from repetitive tasks to assembly tasks that require more complex programming.
  • Play — Once the robot is assembled and the appropriate controls are in place, the student will be able to perform pick-and-place modules on a game board setting. These modules include games like tic-tac-toe, activities like art and crafts creation, manufacturing like robot assembly lines and robot factories, and cross-functional learning like solving spelling or math problems.

The low-cost teaching tool will offer a menu of benefits, including experiential learning for students, pre-developed curriculum for educators, instantly graded feedback and student performance reports to parents, TechComb founders said.

Many current educational robotics packages only one or two functions or applications and once student mastery is achieved, interest wanes, Das said. The reconfigurable nature of the TechComb package will allow for a wide variety of engaging learning modules so that students will continually discover new games, objectives and tasks to perform that builds their interest, he said.

The novel, multifunctional interconnected design allows modules to be quickly reconfigured and reprogramed for a specific need. The patent applications are pending. A multitude of basic and advanced robotic automation methods can be studied, evaluated and implemented from the modular and reconfigurable robotic manipulation cell. After use, the system can be disassembled and the components can be used to build other configurations.

Glenn Larsen, the National Science Foundation's Small Business Innovation Research/Small Business Technology Transfer program director, said projects like TechComb's promise to "benefit the nation's education system and add to the growth of the nation's economy."

Mickey McCabe, executive director of the UTA Research Institute, said the project is representative of research excellence that is advancing UTA's commitment to health and the human condition, a key component of the University's Strategic Plan 2020: Bold Solutions | Global Impact.

"This technology speaks to the University's commitment to spurring interest in the STEM fields," McCabe said. "UTARI encourages entrepreneurship and is focused on the transition of technologies that benefit our society like the work being performed under this NSF grant by TechComb LLC."

Jonathan Kretz, business development director for the UTA Research Institute and a TechComb co-founder, said the team plans to continually provide new hands-on learning tools for students and educators.

"This project has been incredibly encouraging so far, not simply that NSF is invested financially in this project, but how invested it is in the effort and willingness to support our team to get this technology successfully to market," Kretz said. "There is clearly market pull in the education realm for hands-on learning – needs our 'Build-Teach-Play' robots address. It will require a strong relationship between TechComb LLC and the NSF to push UTA innovation to meet the market demand."


UT Arlington Research Institute

University of Texas at Arlington Research Institute bridges the gap between academic research and product development in the areas of product engineering, biomedical technologies and robotics. UTARI researchers collaborate with partners representing government, industry and higher education. UTARI serves as host of industry symposia, consortia and events that bring partners together to further research and development. Visit http://www.uta.edu/utari/about/index.php to learn more.

About The University of Texas at Arlington

The University of Texas at Arlington is a Carnegie "highest research activity" institution of more than 50,000 students in campus-based and online degree programs and is the second-largest institution in The University of Texas System. The Chronicle of Higher Education ranked UTA as one of the 20 fastest-growing public research universities in the nation in 2014. U.S. News & World Report ranks UTA fifth in the nation for undergraduate diversity. UTA is a Hispanic-Serving Institution and is ranked as the top four-year college in Texas for veterans on Military Times' 2016 Best for Vets list. Visit http://www.uta.edu to learn more, and find UTA rankings and recognition at http://www.uta.edu/uta/about/rankings.php.

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