Photos by Anna Louise Imagery

Newlab’s Education Program, in collaboration with Pratt Institute’s Consortium for Research and Robotics, hosted its first hands-on workshop exposing local high schoolers to robotics and virtual reality.

Spheros skittered across the floor like blinking BB-8’s, instructors took turns in the virtual reality (VR) headset, gesturing wildly as new worlds took shape on the screen in front of them. The joints of the ABB industrial robotic arm stood bent in mid-air, ready to be set in motion.

This was the scene at Newlab as the Education team and partners from Pratt Institute’s Consortium for Research and Robotics awaited the arrival of students from Brooklyn Democracy Academy (BDA). The day marked an exciting milestone for Newlab’s growing STEAM Education Program, powered by The Thompson Family Foundation: the first-ever frontier tech workshop where students were exposed to VR and robotics through an interactive curriculum.

Defining The Future

The heart of the Education Program’s mission is to leverage Newlab as a platform to empower and define the next generation by making frontier technologies inspiring, immersive, and accessible for students of all backgrounds. The backdrop of Newlab—home to 600+ designers, engineers, and entrepreneurs—set the tone for a day of creative thinking, prototyping, and critical discussion for BDA high schoolers.

Roboticists, architects, VR specialists and engineers from Pratt Institute’s Consortium for Research and Robotics facilitated the curriculum, which was curated to introduce STEAM concepts through exposure to real-world applications of frontier technologies. Students moved around the room, cycling through a series of thoughtful discussions and taking on new tasks and challenges as they experimented with VR and robots. 

During the workshop, students took turns using virtual reality to create a collaborative drawing. Photo by Anna Louise Imagery.

Before diving into each activity, students spent time considering how these technologies are applied to solve challenges in our world. From the operating room to the factory floor, the surface of Mars, or the bottom of the ocean, students contemplated technological impact on some of today’s greatest areas of exploration. These applications became even more palpable when students learned companies based at Newlab, such as Honeybee Robotics and Manifold Robotics, are tackling these opportunities by building products to augment and extend human capabilities in entirely new ways.

Built by BDA

During the Robot Rumble, students studied the basics of block programming as they used iPads to direct Sphero robots through a maze of their own design. Working in teams, they took measurements and made calculations, testing and recalibrating the code to effectively steer the robot. The room was rapt as students knelt by their robots, tweaking their commands to coax the Spheros through wickets of the maze. Cheers broke out as they successfully navigated their robots.

Spheros robots are programmed to move through a maze of a student’s designs. Photo by Anna Louise Imagery.

On the other side of the room, students sketched in notepads as they eagerly awaited their chance to don a VR headset and contribute to the classes’ collaborative drawing, which was coming to life on screen via Tiltbrush. After everyone took their turn drawing in VR—with the aid of a wand in place of a pen—instructors described the process of transferring the 3D drawing to a file that the ABB industrial robot could then translate into a physical 2D drawing.

Gathered around the ABB robotic arm, the group was enthralled as they watched it, pen in ‘hand,’ replicate the strokes each of them had created in Tiltbrush. Instructors explained how the robot’s arm functioned much like a human’s—some parts designed for big movements and others for fine motor skills. Each student went home with a copy of their classes’ drawing, a memento of the result their teamwork produced.

From the Classroom to the Real-World

The workshop was especially relevant for BDA, an academically rigorous high school in Brownsville designed to reengage and support kids who have dropped out or fallen behind. When the school came into Newlab’s orbit earlier this year, it was clear they were the perfect candidate to pioneer the Education Program’s first workshop.

After a one-on-one studio visit with Newlab member company Farmshelf, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams committed to deploying their smart hydroponic units in public schools across the borough, beginning with BDA. Farmshelf’s product is now giving BDA’s hydroponic program new tools to grow and distribute fresh produce in their community. Through this partnership, Farmshelf units have been placed in the school and students are engaging with a curriculum which will set them on a path to become interns and technicians with the growing startup; making the case for immersive learning that leads to real economic opportunity.

With an ambitious goal of serving over 3,000 students by 2021, Newlab will debut additional programming beginning in 2019. In continued collaboration with Pratt Institute’s Consortium for Research and Robotics, additional topics and skills will be explored in robust curricular modules. Each workshop, mentorship opportunity, and team project will expose students to applications of frontier technologies, STEAM career pathways, and empower them with resources and tools to think like entrepreneurs.

As frontier technologies redefine the future of human experience, ensuring the next generation is equipped to participate and prosper in our rapidly transforming world is the driving force behind Newlab’s STEAM Education Program.

Newlab’s Education Program makes frontier technologies accessible and inspiring for students of diverse ages and backgrounds. Learn more.