Podcast - S1E2

The Complete Engineering® Podcast

Robotics and STEM Outreach: Meet Alisa Gilmore

It really is about engaging the next generation of future engineers and strengthening the pipeline, and it's a wonderful project that the Nebraska Engineering has been a part of for these 10 years.

Alisa Gilmore
Associate Professor of Practice, Electrical & Computer Engineering

Combining her love of engineering and robotics with a passion for STEM outreach programs for kids, Alisa Gilmore is helping to reach the next generations of engineers.

Alisa Gilmore
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Intro: Welcome to the Complete Engineering podcast, brought to you by the College of Engineering. We are Nebraska, where we develop complete engineers with the technical and non-technical skills to do big things. Visit us at engineering.unl.edu.

(celebratory music)

Matt Honke: Hi, and welcome to another episode of the Complete Engineering Podcast. I'm Matt Honke.

Karl Vogel: I'm Karl Vogel.

Matt Honke: And we're with the University of Nebraska College of Engineering. Today we're lucky enough to have Alisa Gilmore, Associate Professor of Practice in Electrical and Computer Engineering with us. Welcome Alisa.

Alisa Gilmore: Thank you, glad to be here.

Karl Vogel: Part of what Alisa does, her area of expertise is in robotics, electrical circuitry, correct? Telecommunications and the like, but we want to start off talking a little bit about one of the other things you do. You have a role as a coordinator for the Nebraska Robotics Expo. Can you give us a little insight, what is the Nebraska Robotics Expo and what is the role that the coordinator plays?

Alisa Gilmore: So the Nebraska Robotics Expo has been going on for 10 years. This is our tenth year, and we bring together about 350 students K through 12, and we celebrate robotics. They work with their teachers during the year, we meet with them a couple times a year, and so that was our big event to give them something to look forward to when they're working in STEM and using the robot to excite them about STEM. It really is about engaging the next generation of future engineers and strengthening the pipeline, and it's a wonderful project that the Nebraska Engineering has been a part of for these 10 years, and it's, we've been sustained. We started out with NSF funded, and now we've been self sustained for the last several years. As the coordinator, my job is to essentially get a team together at the beginning of the year and make sure that we're all doing what we need to do to make the event run on time, and to get all the elements, bring all the people together, be it sponsors, we have vendors, we have a great team we work together with in the UNO College of Education, so it's really a cross campus collaboration. There's a lot of synergy on this team. We've worked with K through 12 teachers across the metro, actually across the state of Nebraska. My job is to say, "Okay, here's, we need to start now." I just keep us moving along, and I see to it that all the details are in place, so that when we go, it's a go. It's a positive experience, it runs well. We're all ready to go. That's my role.

Karl Vogel: What are some of the things that these students do to prepare for participating in this? There, I believe, is a first Lego competition that they have, and then there's also scene bot competitions. What are the differences between those and what are the type of activities that they do at the expo?

Alisa Gilmore: You're correct, so at the expo there's actually three events. There's the scene bot showcase, and that is the scene bot that is the Nebraska created robot. That's the one we work with K through 12 teachers, so we train the teachers, and the teachers are really the stars, I say, because they volunteer and they get their kids involved either in the classroom while their teaching science and math curriculum because there's lessons that directly align, work with the robotic to their standards, and then they bring the kids on either during class or in the after school club, and then they have something to look forward to, to actually compete and have fun in our event. We come together with the first Lego league. First Lego league is run out of Nebraska 4H. Also at UNL and the Lincoln campus. They have a series of competitions, and this is their grand event, their championship. They have teams from around the area, as well. Nebraska, and I think they may draw some from Iowa as well, so it's their state qualifier. We also have, going along with the idea of steam because it's not just about science, technology, math. Creativity, the arts. We have a creative visual arts expo that started about I'd say five or six years ago. They came on, we had an amazing art teacher who wanted to bring in, allow kids to create with robotics. I am a firm believer. As a kid I was very creative, I asked a lot of questions, and sometimes people think of an engineer as not very creative, right? Creativity's not the first thing that comes to your mind, or at all when you think of engineer, but I am a firm believer that creativity is definitely, imagination is a part of that. We have those three events, and the kids do everything from creating robots out of 3D printed, and drawing, and painting, and it's just on display there while we're doing the physical robot activities as well.

Matt Honke: You mentioned that you get students obviously from Omaha, Lincoln, pry the metros, but how spread out is it? Are you finding students coming from small towns all across Nebraska? How is the interest at that K through 12 level with robotics?

Alisa Gilmore: I would say for first Lego league, they would probably, they have a larger statewide reach. I know they have kids from all over. For our program, we started in the metro. We actually start focusing in the Omaha public schools because we really wanted to strengthen those relationships. Our teachers are primarily from Omaha, but we've had teachers come from Western Nebraska, and they have to travel quite a ways to get here, but we open it up to everyone. It's just logistically we tend to get those who are local, and that was the original mission of our project.

Matt Honke: Karl had mentioned earlier about having, what it takes to put on a successful expo. Obviously you need help from existing College of Engineering students. What do you do to recruit those students and what are they doing to help out to make this a successful event?

Karl Vogel: And how many do you get, too? Because if I remember, it's a big number.

Alisa Gilmore: Yeah, so every year we rely on 50 to 60 students to volunteer. There is a course here that is a freshman level course taught by Dr. Mechin that he requires service learning hours. Most of those students, historically, have come from that class, but we open it up to anybody who wants to come. We've had students from Lincoln, the city campus, as well as the Scott campus. Most are from the Scott campus. They sign up and do volunteer hours, and without them we could not put this event on because, essentially, they are our muscle, and they are our judges, and they are the ones who are the boots on the ground and extend our reach of what the small team of 15 of us could do. They set up, we take over the Strategic Air and Space Museum. Every square inch, essentially. They set up all the tables, all the chairs. They set up all the games that we create from scratch every year and we redo the themes, and we bring some more creativity and imagination to it. They set those up. They learn the rules, and they serve as the judges. And then, when it's all over, they tear all of that down while we're having the award ceremony. The thing that's been touching is to see some students, you know, some they volunteer, they get the hours, they check it off, but students that come back year after year after doing that. They say "Aw, I want to do that. "That was so much fun!" The other thing that's been a thrill, last year, the last two years, to have our students who volunteer, who are in our programs, say "Oh I was a kid, I competed in this." And I remember, I remember their schools and now they're in our program, so that's just, it just is such a good feeling. And then they're back volunteering and helping the kids. I think it's so important because the little ones, they look up to them, and they're not that far from them. That makes a really big impact, and it also helps our students because they're giving back. They're seeing what they can do and they're helping out. I think most of them can appreciate it, the opportunity.

Karl Vogel: I've, I know I've interacted with you at the expo before. I brought my daughter there, and I'm seeing her getting an interest in robotics and computer coding, and things like that.

Alisa Gilmore: That's awesome.

Karl Vogel: And then thinking that a lot of it might have to do with that beginning when I first brought her there. Are you seeing that with the students that are coming through the College of Engineering? That some of them have that experience now in that 10 years since the expo's been there. That that laid a foundation for where they are now.

Alisa Gilmore: Well certainly the ones that we find out about. Unfortunately we're not doing a formal tracking. Right. I would love to do that, it's just we just happen to have struck up a conversation and say "oh yeah, I was in that." Oh my gosh! You know, so definitely for those students you would think that that definitely had a foundation and led to them coming to our program, but I just think, in general, when kids are exposed to things as youngsters it makes an impression. There's no, when you think about the memories you had as a kid, you may see something and you just get really happy. There are things that just make an imprint on you as a kid, and so that's one of the things that we want to do is to share our field. My field that I'm fascinated with. I think it's very interesting, and to bring it in a fun, creative, imagine, get the kids involved in imagination, and having fun, and then hopefully they can see a vision of what they can do or something they may be interested in. And I'm glad to hear that about your daughter.

Matt Honke: Speaking of childhood and influences, what helped influence you to become interested in engineering and specifically in robotics as you were growing up?

Alisa Gilmore: I was good in math, I was pretty a well-rounded, good student, and I took physics my senior year. It was pretty late for me. And I love physics, and so I would go home and I would just study, I'm a real nerd. (laughter) I would study, I would make notes. I didn't have to do that, I just did it because it was cool. I loved it. (laughter) My dad would say "Oh, why don't you consider engineering?" Back then, nobody had these kind of events, so I didn't know what engineering was. He just said "Why don't you consider engineering?" I'm like oh okay, great. Talk to this person, they're an engineer, what do you do? And it's just like a bunch of goobly gock. You don't really understand it. But I said oh okay, well I had in the back of my mind. One of the things that really made an impression on me, in my physics class we had, I think he was a PhD student. He was African, and he came in and he helped my physics teacher. He was just like there helping. He came up and he gave an explanation about, something I had observed is when you go up in an elevator, you feel heavier, right? You just feel that weight. When you go down, you feel lighter. He explained how that's force is equal to mass times acceleration and Newton's laws that goes into that, and I just thought "Wow, that is so cool." I mean math has a purpose, you know you can use an equation to describe something I experience. I know I'm just nerding out right now. (laughter) But that was something that just was like, wow. Math has a purpose. I was good in math, but I'm like, you know, it was just math, right? And so I'm like "Oh, you can really use this." I just kinda kept that in the back of my mind. I went to college visits, and I attended my first college, Spelman College, and they had a dual degree engineering program, and the lady that was talking, she was PhD in math, and she reminded me of my grandmother. She was African American woman, and worked with NASA, and she was talking about the engineering program. Those two experiences where my family planted the seed, and then I saw people that looked like me doing this and I was interested in it, then it's just like oh. Yeah, this is it. This is what I want to do.

Matt Honke: You really, we're recording this on the third floor of the Scott campus in Omaha, and I'm immediately, when we take the elevator down, I'm gonna pay attention now. Right, yeah. (laughter) I had never though of that before, which is probably one of the reasons I'm recording a podcast and not doing what you're doing. (laughter) That's awesome though.

Karl Vogel: A lot of getting to the point of where you are in your career is being inspired by somebody. As you mentioned, seeing somebody that looks like you, or acts like you, or has a similar background whose doing something that your interested in. How important is it for people, like parents, adults to model that type of thing for children? I'm talking as a parent of a 13 year old right now. How important is it for me to be a good model and encourage kids to pursue that type of thing?

Alisa Gilmore: Well I think the biggest thing parents can do. I'm a parent, I have a 14 year old and a 17 year old, and so I observe a couple things. The first thing is that you just tell them that they can do anything. That you believe in them, right? Just that confidence that I'm behind you, I believe in you, I believe you can do this. But then, having people outside of you, because I know with my kids, I can say "Oh yeah, I see those qualities, you should be x, y, and z. "You would really be good in that." My son, who's 14, he's like "Oh yeah, no. "I don't want to do all that stuff that you do." But then he gets a survey, a career cluster survey, and guess what comes up as his highest, biggest thing? Computer engineer. And then, all of a sudden, he's like "Oh, I think I could really do this." And I'm like "Okay, let me just keep my mouth closed." I was just say, you know you love her. You know that she's gonna do great, whatever she chooses, and encouraging that, and then putting them, like the expo, in activities that expose them to experiences and other people that can show them a different path, and have a little more credibility in the kid mind than the parent. Even though, we should have credibility.

Matt Honke: You have a senior level robotics class that's been a very popular elective with the students. How does the class help students build a foundation for the rest of their academic and engineering careers?

Alisa Gilmore: So yeah, so the Mobile Robotics One was created with the vision to be the final year of our scene class. The student get the scene bot freshman year, and they put it together. The idea was to have it to be a learning platform, so that it's active and they can use it instead of just learning about circuits on a notebook, to actually apply something and have something actually move around when they're learning programming. They build learning Microprocessor Programming, and they build to different levels. In my class, it's all about making the robot completely autonomous and intelligent. They get to incorporate additional sensors, condition those. They get to use more advance C-Programming tools than they have before, and they get to experiment with an artificial intelligence paradigm, I use behavior based programming. It gives them a flavor of something that is a paradigm that's not just AdHawk, but it gives them a structure so they can make it modular and to accomplish different goals with the various sensors. That gives them their first culminating of a true robot experience. They also learn feedback control, which is things that allow them to follow a line. It makes an airplane not go out of control as your going up, so they learn how to do that with the robot. That's another thing that they don't get other places. It's very, very useful and applicable.

Karl Vogel: The K through 12 outreach from the Nebraska Robotics Expo has been very effective for 10 years now, obviously. Is there anything else you do in your position here at the college or outside the college that's K through 12 outreach in the STEM fields or any other kind of outreach?

Alisa Gilmore: So that's it. That's what I'm able to, yeah. That's it as far as the K through 12. Before, when I was an engineer in Omaha, I participated in the MASA, I believe, the program with OPS where they have professionals come in and they talk to the kids about engineering and then try to encourage more diversity in engineering, so they targeted a group of kids. I loved that, that was the highlight of my day to go interface with the kids, cause they're so impressionable. You would hear, I would hear stories after speaking to, for maybe 20 minutes, the principal wrote me one time and said "That was a great talk, but I heard kids say, walking out say, now I know what I want to do." I've had those experiences, and I think that led me to want to be in education full-time. Being an engineer was great, it was a wonderful experience, but I get to do that even more so in this position.

Matt Honke: When you're not doing robotics and you're not at work, what is something that, what is it that excites you? What's your hobbies? What do you do outside of these walls?

Alisa Gilmore: I have two children who are teenagers, and neither drive, so that takes up. My hobbies are going to all their events. But really, I enjoy performances. I love musicals, Broadway performances. I love dance. I grew up dancing, and I was a cheerleader, so I love all of that type of performance stuff and watching it, and I love traveling. I enjoy traveling with my family, my husband. We take the kids to, we've gone to a lot of the national parks. Growing up, I didn't travel a lot out of the southeast, where I was from, so we've gone to national parks and we tend to go, have several small trips during the year. I enjoy traveling with my family.

Karl Vogel: Does your family have a list of places that's a goal that we want to go see? We asked a similar question to Lance Perez, the dean of the college. He mentioned that he loved to travel, and we asked him if there's a bucket list or a family list. Where have you not gone that you're looking forward to hitting with the family?

Alisa Gilmore: Oh, well probably not with the family. (laughter) Sorry kids.

Karl Vogel: Yeah, sorry kids.

Alisa Gilmore: We've pretty much been in the United States with the kids. We've been a couple places, but I would love to go to Africa, to Europe and see places that I have never been, like that type of overseas. Anywhere over there, there's so many places. Iceland, hearing things about that now. I mean it's so many places, the list is too long to name it all.

Matt Honke: The University of Nebraska College of Engineering, we are committed to growing diversity within engineering. You mentioned that on a couple of occasions here too is what can we be doing to continue to get kids from all different backgrounds? Girls, boys, everyone. How can we get more people interested and involved in becoming an engineer, and knowing that it's an option for them?

Alisa Gilmore: I think, for the most part, it starts early because kids decide pretty early what they can or cannot do. Having people that speak into their lives. When we, we talk to the female engineers that we get, and it's a smaller percentage in electrical engineering, but when we talk to them we've had some, we have very strong students. And say "Well what motivated you to come?" Most of the time, a lot of the time it's been a parent who said you should be an engineer, you should look into this, or a teacher who spoke into their life and said that. By the time they come to our program, I think the biggest thing we can do is to create a welcoming environment and one that has people that look like the students that as staff and professors, that look like them because it always just makes people feel more comfortable. I think we're doing a good job at recruiting and trying to, you know, increase that. Just making them feel welcome, and Nebraska has a lot of positives, you know. There's a lot of, I grew up in the southeast, but there's a lot of similar values here, so just making people feel comfortable and understanding, and I think that the talents can come out and flourish and be nourished that way.

(bell rings three times)

Matt Honke: Alright, now our lightning round of questions here with Alissa. We'll begin with: dog or cat?

Alisa Gilmore: Dog, absolutely.

Matt Honke: Whose your favorite superhero?

Alisa Gilmore: Wonder Woman, of course.

Matt Honke: Favorite tailgating food?

Alisa Gilmore: Barbecue chicken.

Matt Honke: Have you ever used a slide rule?

Alisa Gilmore: No.

Matt Honke: First video game you owned?

Alisa Gilmore: It was probably Atari Pacman.

Matt Honke: Favorite musical genre?

Alisa Gilmore: Gospel.

Matt Honke: What was your favorite toy growing up?

Alisa Gilmore: A little professor calculator.

Matt Honke: If you could time travel, to when would you go?

Alisa Gilmore: Probably the 60s just to witness Dr. Martin Luther King and all the things that were going on at that time.

Matt Honke: On a scale of one to 10, how strict were your parents?

Alisa Gilmore: I was a pretty good kid, so they didn't have to be super strict. Maybe like eight.

Matt Honke: How strict are you?

Alisa Gilmore: Five. (laughter)

Matt Honke: Do you know how to run a VCR?

Alisa Gilmore: Yeah, my wedding video is on a VCR.

Matt Honke: Chocolate or vanilla?

Alisa Gilmore: Vanilla.

Matt Honke: Saturday or Sunday?

Alisa Gilmore:

Matt Honke: What's your pet peeve?

Alisa Gilmore: Having to address and write by hand my address over and over again. I hate that.

Matt Honke: Pancakes or waffles?

Alisa Gilmore: Pancakes.

Matt Honke: Herby Husker or little red?

Alisa Gilmore: Little red.

Matt Honke: Least favorite Thanksgiving food?

Alisa Gilmore: They're all good. I don't have a least favorite.

Matt Honke: Well thank you very much again, Alissa, for joining us.

Karl Vogel: All of you who are listening, make sure you head out to the Nebraska Robotics Expo on February 16th. It's at the SAC Museum near Ashland. It's just off the interstate, it runs eight to five that day and if you need any more information, go to the SAC Museum website. Anything you need should be there. Thank you very much, Alissa. You're welcome, it was my pleasure.

(cheerful piano music)

Voiceover: Thank you for listening to the Complete Engineering podcast. For more information, visit us at engineering.unl.edu. (cheerful piano music)