Monday, July 30, 2012

LEGO robots make great teachers

A partnership between Brown’s Science Center and the Paul Cuffee Middle School gave 10 young student hands-on instruction in the finer points of computer programming and engineering using LEGO® robots as the teaching tool. Brown engineering students Raymon Baek '14 and Michael Lazos '15 were the instructors for the program.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Like sumo wrestlers, two LEGO® robots made their way around an oval ring, grabbing, swatting at each other, and trying with great gusto to push the other robot out of the ring to win the match. Ten young boys — third, fourth, and fifth graders — at the Paul Cuffee Middle School in Providence cheered on their creations, watching in delight as their aggressor responded to pre-programmed commands and light sensors to make their way around the ring in pursuit of the opponent. At each turn, parents and volunteer instructors joined in the cheering at the school’s cafeteria on Friday, July 20th. It was the culmination of a three-week pilot program designed to pique children’s interest in engineering and computer science.

Building a sumo warrior block by block
LEGO® programmers, from left, Aidan Marinelli, Jose Pagan,
and Luke Taylor watch as their team's robot is attacked
by a competitor. It was a sumo-style robotic battle.
Credit: All photos by Mike Cohea/Brown University 
The LEGO® robotic program was a partnership between Brown’s Science Center and the Paul Cuffee Middle School. Ten student participants were divided into two teams — the Panthers and the Demons of Nothingness — and instructed in the finer points of computer programming and engineering using LEGO® robots as the teaching tool. Students used a kit that not only contained LEGO® pieces but robots’ “brains,” which were connected to laptops so students could program the brains to respond to light, touch, ultrasonic, sound, color, temperature, accelerometer, compass, and radio-frequency identification sensors.

Brown students Mike Lazos, a computer engineering concentrator, and Raymon Baek, whose concentration is in mechanical engineering, helped the students design, build and program robots for four hours every day during the three-week summer program. According to instructor Baek the program was a tremendous success.

“The kids were very bright and went beyond our expectations,” Baek said. “We always finished the planned curriculum a lot quicker than expected, which kept Mike and me improvising to stay ahead of the students.”

Keeping a step ahead
Instructors Raymon Baek, left, and Michael Lazos
were surprised at how quickly students mastered
material. In the final battle, the instructors’ own
robot was thrown for a loss.
The students used visual programming software with easily readable icons and distinct colors for each type of tile. For example, movement tiles would tell the robot to move and sensor tiles would tell the program to rely on a specific sensor. The program used wait statements (e.g., wait for a certain sound level or touch sensor to be activated), switch statements (e.g., if the light sensor detects a dark area, move right; move left for a bright area), and loops. These commands made it possible for the robots to compete in the sumo wrestling challenge and an obstacle course.

The students had to be creative about using sensors to follow a zigzag path through the obstacle course, navigating through various boxes, capturing colored balls from a central area, and bringing them back to their starting points. The Panthers easily won the obstacle course because they built a robot that had a robotic arm that pulled nearly all the balls back to its starting point in one trial.

To the victor, the spoils
The robot designed by the Demons of Nothingness
outlasted all competitors.

As for the battle arena, the Demons of Nothingness won because their robot was very bulky and stable. “Mike and I decided to surprise them by introducing our own robot that we assumed was invincible,” said Baek. “We had the three robots fight it out in the ring. To our surprise, our robot was pushed out of the ring and the Demons of Nothingness reigned victorious.”

During the three-week program, the instructors gained some insight about the challenges of teaching. “The boys loved to build, but the programming, which required them to sit still and concentrate was a challenge. They need to get up and run around every so often to burn off some energy,” said Baek.

In this pilot effort, all participants including the students, teachers, learning concept, and execution proved to be a perfect match.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Brown conducts helmet study for girls lacrosse

Joseph "Trey" Crisco, Henry Frederick Lippitt Professor of Orthopaedic Research and Director of the Bioengineering Lab, who has done pioneering research with concussions and football helmets is now studying girl's and women's lacrosse, which does not require helmets. 

Crash-test dummies subjected to a barrage of sticks to the head may help settle the debate over whether helmets should be required in girl's lacrosse.

There has been increased concern over concussions in a sport that prohibits the use of hard helmets, while soft headgear in the girls' game is allowed. Hard helmets are required in the men's version of the game.

Brown University in Rhode Island will conduct a study during the third week of July to try to determine whether helmets will help protect girls from concussions caused by stick-to-head contact, and if so, what type.

"Right now, there is no standard for head protection in the women's game," said Ann Kitt Carpenetti, the managing director of game administration for US Lacrosse, the sport's governing body. "There is an allowance in our rules for soft headgear, but no testing has been done and little or no research."

The issue of requiring helmets in girl's lacrosse, at the high school and college levels, remains a hot-button issue. Many of the players and coaches fear that mandatory helmet use, especially of the hard-shell variety, would make their sport too physical and more like the boys game. But some in the medical profession are fearful of the danger of concussions and are in favor of required helmet use.

Females use more 'finesse'

"The girls' sport was meant to be a finesse sport, an athletic sport, and not a power sport or a brute-force sport," said Shoreham-Wading River coach Mary Ann Bergmann. "US Lacrosse and the referees' associations need to come together and figure out what's best for the sport."

Long Island, which has about 2,000 girls playing lacrosse on 104 high school teams, was the focus of the debate last spring, when Alexandra Fehmel, a star player on Bergmann's team, began playing with a soft helmet designed by a family friend. Before wearing the soft helmet, Fehmel had suffered two concussions playing lacrosse.

Fehmel, whose team won the Class C state championship in June, said wearing the soft helmet "has definitely helped me with my confidence. It protects me from stick-to-head injuries and any concussion I might get from that. I'm not scared to go to goal anymore. I'm not afraid to be aggressive."

Could the results of this summer's testing be the first step toward requiring helmets?

"I would not say that helmet use is inevitable. I would say that what's inevitable is that there will be a standard, hopefully by next year," said Carpenetti.

She said that US Lacrosse, in conjunction with the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment, which established national standards for football and baseball helmets, has funded the research project at Brown.

Project director Joseph "Trey" Crisco, a professor of orthopedics at Brown, said his study's goal "is to try to understand what head accelerations girls receive during games. How hard is the head being impacted by ball or stick?"

He said he had hoped to use sensors to measure that impact, but there was no place to effectively attach the sensors on players' heads.

"So we decided to use dummies, like they use in car crash simulations," Crisco said. "We have a model and we will have girls lacrosse players from the [Rhode Island] area come into our lab and whack away from different angles. They'll be whacking on the top of the 'head' and the side of the 'head.' They'll use the tip, the shaft and the middle of the stick so we can determine the severity of stick checks."

Crisco noted that the head forms are gender-neutral, "but they do have sizes, and we're using the smaller size."

Crisco said that once the data is compiled, "it will help US Lacrosse determine the type of helmets or whether there is even a need for them."

Crisco said results will require four to six weeks to be analyzed, and he estimates it will take several months before the report is ready.

One player's decision

For Fehmel, the question of requiring helmets has already been answered. She said she favors requiring soft helmets but not hard ones.

"Hard helmets would hurt players even more, just from bumping into each other," she said.

Bergmann, who currently is playing lacrosse in Europe where no headgear is worn, said she isn't sure where she stands on the issue of helmets.

"If you give everyone helmets, is the game going to become more aggressive?" she asked. "That's why I'm still in between."

Dr. Karl Friedman, Nassau County's supervising physician for football and lacrosse championships, is not a helmet advocate. "We don't need the helmet," he said. "We don't want to change the game. . . . The more equipment you put on them, the more you can let them play because now the safety is covered by the equipment. Absolutely they'll be more careless with their sticks . They'll be more fearless and the referees will loosen up."

Getting a second opinion

However, there are those in the medical community who feel strongly that hard-shell, boys-style lacrosse helmets are not only essential in the girls' game, but inevitable.

"When rules for girls lacrosse were written, they were written to keep the ball and stick out of the sphere of the head," said Dr. Jack Marzec, team physician for West Islip and East Islip high schools and consulting orthopedic physician for the Long Island Lizards professional men's lacrosse team.

"Girls are getting quicker, stronger, more aggressive," he added. "They're looking for scholarships and they want to win, just like the boys. I am adamant that hard helmets must be instituted in girls lacrosse because it's impossible to keep the stick and ball off the head."

Nationally known concussion expert Dr. Micky Collins, of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, said he can't make up his mind whether requiring female players to wear helmets is a good idea.

"I'm sitting on the fence," he said. "We know girls are more at risk for concussions. . . . There are a lot of issues on the table here. The only way to answer these questions is to do the research and find out, scientifically, where we're at. There is no good science leading us right now."

Originally published in Newsday
by Bob Herzog
with Stephen Haynes and James Crepea


Players must wear a mouthpiece and protective goggles. They may wear a soft padded helmet but not hard-shell headgear.

Checking is permitted on the head of the lacrosse stick only.

No deep pocket in the stick is allowed. No mesh pockets.

Length of stick is the same for all field players (typically 42 inches).

Played with 12 members on each team: a goalie, five defensive players and six attack players.

At least five players must remain on the defensive side of the field and four on the offensive side at all times.

Shooting is permitted only when pathway to goal is clear.

Defenders cannot block an attacker's pathway to shoot on goal unless they are within one stick-length of the attacker.

Cannot shoot a loose, uncontrolled ball; cannot hit another player with the ball; cannot hit the goalie in the head with the ball.


Players must wear a hard-shell helmet with face guard.

Stick-to-body contact is integral to the game.

Checking is permitted anywhere on the stick.

Pockets in sticks are allowed because of the checking.

The length of the stick is different for different positions.

Played with 10 members on each team: a goalie, three defenders, three midfielders and three attackmen.

At least four players must remain on the defensive side of the field and three on the offensive side at all times.

Players may shoot at anytime.

Students demand entrepreneurship training

Clyde Briant, professor of engineering and vice president for research, was in Washington, D.C., on July 11 for a media roundtable hosted by The Science Coalition. Innovation and entrepreneurship was a hot topic. Below is an excerpt from Briant’s answer to the question, “Are we as a nation doing enough as a nation to inspire, prepare and develop the next generation of innovators?” An MP3 recording of the session is available online.

At Brown we have the famous open curriculum – it’s still called the new curriculum even though it started in 1969 – where the students have a tremendous amount of freedom in building up what they are going to take. We attract a cohort of entrepreneurial students. We do have an entrepreneurship program. It’s a student-led organization that’s extremely active, and one I’ve worked with in various ways through the years. I’d guess it’s about eight or nine years ago, really out of student demand, [that] we started a new major — a concentration as we call it — called Commerce, Organizations and Entrepreneurship. We don’t have a business school, but we pulled together engineering, sociology, and economics to launch this new undergraduate concentration. It certainly is one of the biggest concentrations now in a very short time because students feel that they do get experiential learning, they do get a chance to prepare themselves for a career in entrepreneurship. It’s been an extremely successful program for us.

Venture training helps entrepreneurs succeed

Venture for America's first class of 40 fellows, including engineering alumnus Tim Dingman '11, is currently on the Brown campus for the program's inaugural five-week training camp. Founded in 2011 by Brown alum Andrew Yang, the program places recent college graduates who have aspirations for entrepreneurship into two-year apprenticeships at startup and early stage companies in economically challenged cities around the country. In the fall, the first class of fellows will be headed to jobs in New Orleans, Las Vegas, Cincinnati, Detroit, and Providence.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — For many young people, the way forward after college leads from the classroom to the corporate office, often with a stop at law or business school. But Andrew Yang knew that life after college didn’t have to follow a well-worn path; it was just a matter of making sure recent graduates knew about other options available to them. Seeking to do just that, Yang founded Venture for America, a fellowship program that pairs recent graduates with startups and early stage companies, in the summer of 2011.
Helping startups help host cities
By matching recent well-trained college graduates with
startups and early stage companies, Venture for America
hopes to help the economies of financially strained cities.
Based on the Teach for America model, Venture for America fellows complete two-year apprenticeships with companies in economically challenged cities. Working in a small company, fellows can help to grow the business while also gaining valuable real-world skills and experience. Yang also hopes that the model will have an economic impact on the cities where the partnering companies are located. “Early stage companies are where job growth and innovation are going to come from.”
Yang says it may take a few years for the effects to be obvious. “This year we’ll send five students to a city, but next year it might be 10 and then 10 again the next year. By then, the first group of students will be starting companies, and they will hire some from the next group. It’s a long-term plan to help these economies; there aren’t any quick fixes,” Yang says.
Before heading off to their respective cities, Venture for America fellows take part in a five-week training camp that prepares them for their new jobs.
Since mid-June, the first class of 40 fellows has been on the Brown campus, taking part in the program’s inaugural training camp. Each day they gather on the third floor of Pembroke Hall for a day filled with lectures and lessons by an impressive roster of industry experts — McInsey and Ideo are two of the companies taking part — followed by skill development, with small groups completing tasks such as creating a business model or programming a computer.
In September, they’ll head off to five cities around the country — New Orleans, Las Vegas, Cincinatti, Detroit, and Providence — to begin their apprenticeships. Four fellows talked about what they’re learning from the program and where they’re headed in the fall:

Tim Dingman graduated from Brown in the spring of 2011 and was entering the fifth-year master’s in engineering program when he began to think about what he’d do when he got out of school. As an organizer of the A Better World By Design conference for two years, he had realized that a lifetime in the research lab wasn’t for him: “I always felt there was a large disconnect between what was happening in the lab and what was happening in the real world where you can make the biggest immediate impact.” So when he found out about Venture for America, he knew immediately that the program would give him that dual outlet that he needed. In the fall, he’s headed to Detroit to work for Accio Energy, an early stage company that works on harvesting wind energy by giving an electrical charge to water droplets.
Dingman says that the training camp is giving him a wide range of skills to take with him to his new job, most notably the ability to be more open to feedback. “It seems intimidating to give someone very specific and personal feedback, but I’ve realized that in fact, it’s something to be encouraged and embraced to have a fully function team.”

Scott Lowe had two specific criteria in his search for a job after graduating from the University of Oklahoma in 2012: “I wanted something intellectually stimulating but also high impact.” A program at his alma mater that had him working on commercializing technologies developed by University of Oklahoma faculty helped him realize that he also had an interest in entrepreneurship. So when a friend told him about Venture for America, it sounded like the perfect fit. The aspiring CEO says the training camp is providing valuable lessons he’ll be able to put toward his future goals. “I’m viewing this as CEO training. A CEO doesn’t have to know a lot about any one thing but needs to know a little bit about every aspect of the company, from finance to sending e-mails effectively. I think they’re doing a great job of CEO training.”
Headed to Detroit in the fall to work as a software analyst at Digerati, Lowe hopes to wear many hats during his apprenticeship. And while the transition from his small Oklahoma town to a very large city will no doubt take some getting used to, Lowe says he’s excited for the potential Detroit has to offer. “One of the fellows, Derek Turner, has a great quote: ‘There are empty skyscrapers (in Detroit). Where else would you want to start a business?’ I think that really speaks to why I’m excited.”

Melanie Freidrichs won’t have far to go when she begins her apprenticeship this fall. The 2012 Brown graduate will be heading down the hill to Providence-based Andera, an early stage company that creates software for small banking companies. It’s an ideal assignment for Freidrichs, who hopes to remain in the industry for the long term. “It’s an area that has been on the forefront of technology in many ways, but I do think there is a long way to go in terms of mobile banking and mobile payments and seeing what can be done to play with the traditional banking model to make that information easier to understand and more accessible for everyone.”
Freidrichs says she’s thankful for all of the technical skills she’s acquiring in the training camp, such as programming and Java, which will serve her well at her new job. She says she also appreciates the balance of startup and corporate perspectives that has been offered, despite Venture for America’s primarily small-business focus. “I don’t feel that the best entrepreneurs are the one’s that get caught up in being super startupy. I’m trying to look at what influences I can take from big business versus the startup world to be the best entrepreneur.”

When Michael Mayer was preparing to graduate from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in 2012, he turned to family and friends for guidance. Many of them had had success in banking, so Mayer chose a similar path, starting out as an intern for Credit Suisse the summer before his senior year. But when the company offered him a job, he turned it down. “I had an incredible summer, but the day-to-day in banking was not something I could get behind and get passionate about,” Mayer says. He confesses that he was initially nervous about his decision, but when he stumbled upon Venture for America, he knew he’d made the right choice. “It was kind of love at first sight,” Mayer says.
One aspect of the program that attracted him has the community outreach component. “You’re going to these places that need help, and not only are you helping to grow a business and enhance the local economy, but you’re also there to mentor kids at high schools or start some kind of social program to help people connect, so there’s a whole different aspect that you don’t get working at a startup elsewhere.” Mayer will be able to put that philanthropic spirit to good use in New Orleans, where he’ll be working for market research technology firm Federated Sample. Where he goes after his apprenticeship, he’s unsure, but he’s certain that he’ll value and use the network of fellows he’s met at the training camp for many years. “When I have a business idea, the first people I’m going to call are the fellows. While we’re here, we’re throwing out ideas left and right, giving constructive criticism and helping each other out, so we’re all going to be close and comfortable talking about our new ideas later on. I’m so excited to see what the future holds.”

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Professor Nitin Padture Named Director of Center for Advanced Materials Research

Brown University School of Engineering Professor Nitin Padture, Professor of Engineering, has agreed to become the new director of the Center for Advanced Materials Research (CAMR).

“I want to thank Professor Padture for taking on this important leadership position at Brown and the School of Engineering,” said Larry Larson, Dean of Engineering. “Since arriving earlier this year, Professor Padture has demonstrated amazing resourcefulness in building up a world-leading research program in a short period of time. We will all benefit from his energetic direction as the new director of the Center for Advanced Materials Research (CAMR).”

Padture joined the Brown faculty in January of 2012. Previously he was College of Engineering Distinguished Professor at The Ohio State University, and also the founding director of the NSF-funded Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC) at OSU.

“At Brown he has already made important contributions to IMNI [Institute for Molecular and Nanoscale Innovation] and to CAMR,” said Clyde Briant, Vice President for Research.

“I am deeply honored to have the chance to serve the vibrant materials community at Brown, and I hope to create an environment that fosters interdisciplinary material research of the highest quality and impact,” said Padture.

Padture received B.Tech. in metallurgical engineering from Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay (1985), M.S. in ceramic engineering from Alfred University (1987), and Ph.D. in materials science and engineering from Lehigh University (1991).

He was a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) for three years, before joining the University of Connecticut faculty in January 1995 as an assistant professor. He became an associate professor in 1998 and was promoted to professor in 2003. He served as interim department head at UConn before moving to Ohio State in January 2005.

Padture’s teaching and research interests are in the broad areas of synthesis/processing and properties of advanced materials used in applications ranging from jet engines to computer chips, impacting transportation, energy, and information technology sectors. Specifically, he has active research in tailoring of structural ceramic, composites, and coatings, and functional nanomaterials including graphene and perovskites.

Padture has published over 120 journal papers, which have been cited about 5,000 times. Padture is a co-inventor of four patents, and he has delivered some 150 invited/keynote/plenary talks in the U.S. and abroad. A fellow of the American Ceramic Society, he has received that society’s Roland B. Snow, Robert L. Coble, and Richard M. Fulrath awards. Padture is also a recipient of the Office of Naval Research Young Investigator Award and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Padture is a principal editor of Journal of Materials Research and an associate editor of Journal of the American Ceramic Society.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Multiple perspectives improve laparoscopy

Surgeons given their own view of a laparoscopic task, rather than a shared one, can work more efficiently and accurately, a small new study suggests. Findings from “proof of concept” experiments appear in the Journal of Laparoendoscopic and Advanced Surgical Techniques. Professor of Engineering Harvey Silverman helped to develop the system.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — What makes laparoscopic surgery “minimally invasive” — instruments enter the patient through narrow tubes — also makes it visually constraining. As they work on different tasks, surgeons all see the same view. What if each surgeon could control a separate view best suited to the specific task? In a new paper, pediatric surgeon Dr. Francois Luks and his team of co-authors at Brown University and Hasbro Children’s Hospital report that in a small in vitro trial, surgeons with their own views performed faster and more accurately.

Individual views
Earlier work experimented with special googles that allowed
individual surgeons to hone in on their tasks, but goggles
isolated members of the surgical team. Individual views on
individual monitors appear to improve performance on
complex surgical tasks.
Credit: Francois Luks/Brown University
“When we perform regular surgery, there is more than one point of view,” said Luks, professor of surgery in the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. “If I’m operating with somebody on an open case, I can focus on one aspect of the wound while my assistant can focus on something else. I can cut a suture while he starts the next. We can never do that with laparoscopy, because it is only a single image.”

For Luks and his colleagues the idea of giving each surgeon control of his or her own point of view during laparoscopic surgery has emerged as a key step toward making laparoscopic surgery feel more like open surgery.

Does it do any good?

A natural question, however, is whether doing so would produce the assumed performance improvement. The small “proof-of-concept” experiments in the new paper, published online June 25 in the Journal of Laparoendoscopic and Advanced Surgical Techniques, were meant to begin answering that. First author Dr. Rajan Thakkar, a surgical resident at Brown University and Rhode Island Hospital, presented the results earlier this year at the IPEG 2012 conference.

Different parts of the whole
A single laparoscope delivers an image that is large enough
to allow each surgeon a highly detailed separate view
optimized for the surgical task.
To conduct the study, Luks’ team gathered 20 surgeons of different experience levels to take on two standardized training tasks. The volunteers were paired in teams of similar experience (e.g., two novices or two experts). Gazing at wall-mounted monitors, each pair would perform each task once using a shared view from one camera and once using individual laparoscopes and therefore their own individually controlled images. The order in which each pair performed the tasks was determined randomly.

The research team meanwhile measured the speed and accuracy of each pair’s performance as they worked.

For the first task, one surgeon had to pluck each of 10 beads, one by one, out of a small dish and pass it in mid-air to the partner who had to then place it atop a peg. The novice pairs did not show any improvement in speed using individual views versus a shared view, taking about 600 seconds to accomplish the task in each case. Experts, however, sped up considerably, reducing the task time to 245 seconds on average using individual views, compared to 409 seconds with the shared view.

The second task involved threading a suture around a rubber band and around some pegs. The band would topple if one surgeon didn’t control the tension on the suture that the other created while pulling it around the pegs. On this task, both novice and expert pairs improved markedly with individual views. Novice pairs with individual views did the task in 53.5 seconds on average compared to 90.5 seconds when they had to share a view. Experts did the job in 49 seconds with individual views but 71.7 seconds with the shared view. Individualized viewing also reduced the number of times a rubber band was knocked down.

One camera, individual views

In practice, a surgical team uses only one laparoscope, not two, and so there would be only one image to work from. In previous research the team has shown how software can isolate individually useful views from within a single image.

In 2009 in the same journal, Luks and a team including current co-author Dr. Jeremy Aidlen, described an electronic goggle system called i-LID that offered wearers a unique view from within one image that they could control simply by moving their head to look around or zoom in and out. Given a large, high-resolution image from the laparoscopic camera, software simply carved out the portions that each surgeon indicated interest in based on head movement. The team worked with engineers including Harvey Silverman, professor of engineering at Brown, to develop the system.

The idea had some drawbacks, however. For one thing, goggles isolate surgeons from each other, Luks said. Also wireless transmission of the high-definition image to each pair of goggles could create latency, and while versions with wires had faster data speeds, they had the potential to be physically imposing in the close quarters of surgery.

But now Luks and Aidlen are encouraged both by the new results indicating that individual views could help surgical teams perform better, and by Aidlen’s grant from the Rhode Island Foundation to develop an automated system that delivers individual control of views from within the same image, but does so without isolating goggle control.

That next innovation, and more testing, will move them closer to bringing individually controllable views and their apparent benefits into the operating room.

Luks and Aidlen are the senior authors. The paper’s second author is Dr. Shaun Steigman, fellow in pediatric surgery at Hasbro Hospital and Brown University.

- by David Orenstein