On April 29th, the Coalition for National Science Funding (CNSF), an alliance of over 140 professional organizations, universities, and businesses, held their 21st Annual Capitol Hill Exhibition. CNSF supports the goal of increasing the federal investment in the National Science Foundation’s research and education programs, and the exhibition itself is a great way to show members of Congress and their staff what research the American people have funded.

Greg Hager, of Johns Hopkins University & the Computing Community Constorium, explains aspects of his students' research to NSF Director Francis Cordova.

Greg Hager, of Johns Hopkins University & the Computing Community Consortium, explains aspects of his students’ research to NSF Director France Cordova.

This year the Computing Research Association, a member of CNSF, sponsored three students, two PhD candidates and a defended PhD candidate, from Johns Hopkins University to come to Washington to demonstrate their work. Kelleher Guerin (the defended PhD candidate) and Amanda Edwards demonstrated their collaborative robot for manufacturing, called CoSTAR; while Colin Lea demonstrated a virtual reality interface that can be used to more easily program robots by novice, non-technical users. All three young researchers are advised by Greg Hager, professor and chair of the Department of Computer Science at Johns Hopkins University and Chair of the Computing Community Consortium; Dr. Hager was also in attendance at the event and fielded questions.

Amanda Edwards, of Johns Hopkins University, demonstrates the CoSTAR system to Deborah Lockhart of NSF.

Amanda Edwards demonstrates the CoSTAR system to Deborah Lockhart of NSF.

CoSTAR, a system for human instruction and collaboration with robotic systems, has been developed to enable experts skilled at a task, but not skilled with programming, to instruct the robot as an apprentice. In apprenticeship, a teacher understands the capabilities of the apprentice, and builds on those capabilities until the apprentice can perform the desired tasks. Their system allows for a similar instruction of robots by representing the capabilities of a robot as a set of easy to understand building blocks. A novice end-user can then use these building blocks to create a plan, which the robot follows to accomplish a task. This also allows for the robot to reuse information it is taught across many different tasks. Their system also allows for the robot to collaborate with humans, and respond to dynamic events just as a human would. In addition, they showed how advances in virtual reality could provide an environment for intuitive robot interaction and teaching.

Kelleher Guerin explains his work on the CoSTAR system to exhibition attendees.

Kelleher Guerin explains his work on the CoSTAR system to exhibition attendees.

With regard to the virtual reality interface, it was noted that most robots used in factories are old and not intended to be used directly with humans. Users must stand behind shielding where they spend a substantial amount of time programming the robot. The researchers’ work showed how advances in virtual reality could provide an environment for intuitive robot interaction and teaching. Using a virtual reality headset, and a pair of 3D joysticks, a user can virtually move the robot around as if they were performing the task themselves.

Colin Lea explains the virtual reality interface to Anita Benjamin of the American Mathematical Society.

Colin Lea explains the virtual reality interface to Anita Benjamin of the American Mathematical Society.

All of this work is supported from the CISE directorate at NSF. Both projects were well received by the attendees of the exhibition; in fact, the students fielded questions from members of Congress, Congressional staffers, NSF Program Officers, and even the NSF Director, France Córdova.

A number of other organizations had displays and were demonstrating NSF funded research at the event. From the University of Illinois’ National Center for Supercomputing Applications “NSF Blue Water” supercomputer, to the American Political Science Association’s “American National Election Studies: Understanding the Changing American Electorate,” to the American Astronomical Society’s “Disruptive Technology & Cosmology at 17,000 Feet,” the exhibition was a great display of the different types of research being supported by NSF. Look here to see a list of some of the participating organizations and what a few of the exhibitors were presenting.

[Editor’s Note: Each year, the Coalition for National Science Funding (of which CRA is a member) hosts a Capitol Hill science exposition featuring representatives from 30+ universities and scientific societies, all there to highlight the important research funded by the National Science Foundation for an audience of Members of Congress, congressional staffers, Administration and agency staffers, members of the scientific advocacy community and the press. This year’s exhibition happened to coincide with National Robotics Week, so we at CRA were fortunate that well-known roboticist Dr. Robin Murphy, of Texas A&M University, could pull double-duty and appear at both the Congressional Robotics Caucus briefing marking National Robotics Week and represent CRA at the CNSF exhibition. We were also pleased that Dr. Murphy brought along one of her graduate students, Brittany Duncan, to help show off their research. Brittany put together a great account of her experience at the exhibition that, with her permission, we’re happy to reprint here.]

I wanted to add the graduate student view of CRA from my participation in the CNSF Exhibition during the National Robot Awareness week. I’m a grad student at Texas A&M University, where I have an OGS Diversity Fellowship and an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. Before this event, I wasn’t familiar with the CRA beyond the Distributed Mentoring Program which I was funded under in 2008.

One of the big lessons I learned was that I didn’t realize how much muscle it takes to be a roboticist! I helped haul 120 pounds of robots about ½ a block from the curb to the disabled access entrance, unpacked and repacked the robots to get them through security, and then navigated the Rayburn Building.

Brittany Duncan hauls search and rescue robots to Capitol Hill for the CNSF Capitol Hill Science Exhibition

The event was really something special, having a room full of scientists interacting with each other, and with everyone enthusiastic about outreach. As roboticists, we get used to this but it is truly great to see how people react to our robots, not just members of Congress but also the other scientists and even kids. It was great to meet congressmen and women who were interested in science and technology AND how to get students more involved in these areas. I also liked the fact that the other scientists were interested in us and how to work with our lab in the future. The highlight of my night was the one middle school student that was there got enthusiastic about robots, when he wasn’t before. His mom pushed him forward from the crowd to ask questions and get his picture taken with one of our robots.

There were many surprises on this visit. The first was that CRA does this (and that they thought robotics was cool enough to invite us to this event). I also thought it was great that the members of Congress were interested in science and in meeting me, as a grad student, versus just talking to me while they were waiting for Dr. Murphy. It was also surprising that I had things in common with Dahlia Sokolov, who is a Staff Director as well as a former NSF Graduate Research Fellow. I also had fun bonding with Rep. Vern Ehlers over flying because he is a pilot and I am working on my license.

As I stood there, I realized that this wonderful experience (as well as my NSF Graduate Fellowship and my choice of universities and advisors) stemmed in a large part from the summer I was funded by the CRA Distributed Mentoring Program (DMP). The DMP allowed me to see what it was like to research at a different school, which gave me a better appreciation for different points of view. It was also a big change to have a female mentor plus female grad students in the lab. The biggest change though was getting to see how it would be to spend time on research rather than juggling classes. Most importantly, I gained a group of people to get advice from about grad school, what to look for in grad school, and recommendations. In fact, I still remain in contact with some of these people, who are now Ph.D.s working in the field. To summarize, I would not be at Texas A&M without this experience and it gave me a head start for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship.

Duncan shares some of her research with Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-MI), ranking member of the House Science and Tech Committee Subcommittee on Research and Education

The experience of getting to go to Washington to demo for Congress was a big deal because it allowed me to talk and demo our robots to the people who make decisions about the future of robotics and computer science. I also gained a great deal of pride in CRA and the great job that both Peter and Melissa do!  They were wonderful hosts and really helped us to meet people.

-Brittany Duncan, Texas A&M

[Ed note: If your institution is a CRA member and you’d like to participate in next year’s CNSF Exhibition as CRA’s representative, let us know!]

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