#WhyIMake: Because I Want to See More Robot Zookeepers All Over the World!

by AJ Almaguer | 4/17/2017

AJ Almaguer @ajalmaguer, is an Infy Maker Award Winner for his Robot Petting Zoo concept As a design engineer and engineering educator, AJ is the happiest when he is working on complex, multidisciplinary design projects in the company of other crazy fun kids and adults.

Five years ago I begrudgingly sponsored some of my high school interns in a robotics competition while working at the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley, CA. Although I’m a mechanical engineer by training, robotics competitions never felt like something I’d enjoy... But then I got really into it.

I was also very pleased to see what my interns were learning in this competition. They were solving more complex practical engineering problems than most 2nd year college engineering students. I finally understood the value of learning robotics at an early age—it teaches creativity, problem solving, and collaboration and provides context to much of what we learn in our STEM classes.

HOWEVER, this experience demonstrated my one qualm about robotics competitions. There wasn’t a single lady down on the stage during the final round of the robotics competition.

Robotics Competition

I don’t mean to defame the competition, because I respect them a lot, but I just have to point out that robotics is totally male dominant, just like my graduating engineering class. *sigh* Even I am at fault for having an all-male team, with the exception of one female undergrad mentor. Unfortunately, the girl interns at the Hall did not want to join. They told me that they didn’t feel like they would “fit in.”

Ouch.

Some of my best friends are women engineers. And three of my most influential mentors are women engineers! There has to be a distinct alternative to robotics competitions that’s as technically intense as these robotics competitions but would engage the interests of female participants and make them feel like they would “fit” in.

This was my inspiration for the Robot Petting Zoo. Instead of putting on a competition where robots played against each other, how about hosting a showcase of adorable robots that you could feed and pet to their delight? Instead of building a robot that would win a game, participants would build a robot that would make a kid smile.

Robotics Competition

With the help and support of my team, I got to work and hosted a trial hackathon for high schoolers at the Hall. The prompt was to create a robot for our robot petting zoo and the toolset was the typical Maker tools like Arduinos, cardboard, servo motors, etc. But then I noticed the participants were quickly running into “bad hard” problems like, “How do I even program this motor to move?” This experimental hackathon gave us enough insight to create our design principles for the robot petting zoo:

  1. Get rid of the “bad hard” so the kids can focus on conquering the “good hard.” For example:
    1. No breadboarding when it comes to electronics. Make it plug and play.
    2. Use a block-based programming language to avoid syntax frustrations.
    3. Make building the physical robot feel more like playing with legos than doing carpentry.
  2. The zoo was equally as important as the hackathon to showcase the kids’ work.
  3. We need workshops to give the participants a head start.

My team tested out our newly designed kit and workshops at our very first official makeathon (aka “making hackathon”) and robot petting zoo, which was hosted by the Children’s Creativity Museum in San Francisco, CA.

Robotics Competition

And while we were delighted to see that we provided a rich experience for all the participants of the makeathon and visitors of the zoo, we were most surprised to see that our makeathon mentors, which were local educators, took their training and experience to their own schools! Suddenly robot petting zoos were spontaneously popping up in our community. So far there have been at least 10 Robot Petting Zoos around the country. Here are a few of the schools and organizations that have hosted them:

  1. The TechHive Studio at The Lawrence Hall of Science, Berkeley, CA
  2. Lighthouse Community Charter School, Oakland, CA
  3. Katherine Delmar Burke School, San Francisco, CA
  4. Recreate, Roseville, CA
  5. YMCA of Greater Pittsburgh, PA

Robot Petting Zoo Makeathon at Lighthouse Community Charter School

Robotics Competition
Robotics Competition

That’s when we knew we were onto something and we started asking, how could we make more robot zoo keepers? We are currently working with educators and technology makers to scale our current prototypes. We’d like to thank Infosys Foundation USA for selecting us as an Infy Maker award winner and granting us $10,000 to continue our mission. You can keep up to date with the robot petting zoo, or learn more about starting your own zoo, at: rpzmake.org.

InfyMakers Awards Winners 2015
Infy Maker Awards Adult Winner AJ A. | Winter Cycle 2016