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Jan. 8: University Alliance Works To Increase Robotics Education, Research at Historically Black Colleges and Universities


Byron Spice                       

Anne Watzman

University Alliance Works To Increase Robotics Education,
Research at Historically Black Colleges and Universities

PITTSBURGH — Carnegie Mellon University and six other research universities have joined forces with eight historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in a collaborative project to promote robotics and computer science education for African-American students.

The Advancing Robotics Technology for Societal Impact (ARTSI) Alliance grew out of a previous collaboration between Andrew Williams, associate professor of computer and information science at Spelman College in Atlanta and David Touretzky, research professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon, which established robotics education labs at Spelman and three other HBCUs.

Funded by a three-year, $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation, ARTSI will develop outreach programs to encourage African-American students at both the K-12 and college levels to pursue careers in computer science and robotics and will provide mentoring programs for undergraduates. The alliance, with Williams as principal investigator and Touretzky as director of robotics education, also will provide professional development activities for HBCU faculty teaching computer science and robotics courses.

African-Americans now account for just 4.8 percent of almost two million U.S. computer and information scientists, a job category that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects will be among the fastest growing occupations over the next decade.

Touretzky said ARTSI activities will vary from institution to institution, depending on the need of each. "Some of these schools are getting their first research-quality robots," he said, adding that those institutions will need to develop basic curricula. Spelman and three other schools, by contrast, already have established robotic programs based on Tekkotsu (, a robot programming system developed in Touretzky's lab and distributed for free by Carnegie Mellon.

Carnegie Mellon will host a faculty development workshop this summer in Pittsburgh. Carnegie Mellon faculty participating in ARTSI include Illah Nourbakhsh, an associate professor of robotics with special expertise in educational robots and community outreach, and Sara Kiesler, a professor in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute who will be responsible for the alliance's evaluation activities.

In addition to Spelman, the participating HBCUs are Hampton University, Morgan State University, Florida A&M University, Norfolk State University, Winston-Salem State University, the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff and the University of the District of Columbia.

Curricula, research internships and mentoring opportunities will be made available by Carnegie Mellon and other alliance members, including the University of Pittsburgh, the Georgia Institute of Technology, Brown University, Duke University, the University of Alabama and the University of Washington. Corporate partners include Seagate Technology, Microsoft, Apple, iRobot and Juxtopia.

Activities will include:

  • Academic-year student research activities at HBCUs;
  • Summer research internships for HBCU students in the labs of university faculty;
  • An annual student research conference and workshop;
  • Local outreach at middle schools and high schools serving minority populations in each HBCU's community;
  • National outreach through an ARTSI Web portal, currently under development (an interim Web site can be viewed now at;
  • "Viral marketing" through student-produced robotics videos on YouTube that showcase the achievements of ARTSI-affiliated students and faculty.

The ARTSI Alliance will hold its official kickoff event during a Martin Luther King celebration Jan. 14 at the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Va.