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Schweitzer Fellow Leads Robot Team to Victory

Kristen Lurie '08 hopes to increase girls' interest in engineering

Girls in the fifth and sixth grades at the Hanover Street School in Lebanon, N.H., are learning more about engineering and programming thanks to Kristen Lurie '08, a New Hampshire/Vermont Schweitzer Fellow for 2006-2007. The Schweitzer program provides college students with funding and support to work on a range of projects that benefit underserved populations in local communities. The program was begun in 1940 to support the efforts of physician and humanist Albert Schweitzer.

Robot Team
From left: NH/VT Schweitzer Fellow Kristen Lurie '08 and fifth grade students at the Hanover Street School in Lebanon, N.H., Rachel Pollard, Alison Fielder, Lauren Martin, Kate Haidari, and Natalie Cantlin. Lurie helped the students, dubbed the Lebanon Lightning Legos, learn how to program a LEGO NXT robot to complete tasks. (Photo by Steven J. Smith)

Lurie is one of 29 Schweitzer Fellows from five different colleges in New Hampshire and Vermont. Fourteen of the fellows are from Dartmouth, and they are working on projects such as introducing members of a Manchester, N.H., Hispanic community to careers in health care; developing a life skills course for Upper Valley women in recovery from alcohol or drug addiction; and creating a mentoring program that pairs Dartmouth Medical School (DMS) students with adolescents from underserved areas in the Upper Valley.

"Kristen is doing just what students in the Schweitzer program are meant to do," says Joseph O'Donnell, senior advising dean at DMS and founder of the NH/VT Schweitzer program in 1996. "She's having a real impact on those girls by introducing them to engineering at an early age." O'Donnell says that he was thrilled to be able to extend the program to engineering students this year. "We're grateful to the generosity of Richard Couch '64, Thayer '65, and Barbara Couch, who made these engineering programs possible," he says. Richard Couch is founder and chief executive officer of Hypertherm Inc.

Adorned with the team name of the Lebanon Lightning LEGOs, Lurie and the five to seven girls spent this past fall learning how to program a LEGO Mindstorm NXT robot to complete various "missions," such as turning at a precise moment to pick up sticks. To make the robot maneuver correctly, code is typed into a laptop computer, which is then transferred to the robot's 32-bit microprocessor. "It's so cool," says fifth-grade student Rachel Pollard. "You just type something into a computer, and it makes the robot go."

After devoting two to three afternoons per week to the project, including spending extra time on weekends, the students displayed their robot's prowess in regional and state tournaments. At the FIRST (For the Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) regional competition in Merrimack, N.H., the Lebanon Lighting LEGOs came in eighth place out of 24 teams, and, to Lurie's delight, they won first prize for their research presentation on their idea to create electric clothing that charges an iPod. "The judges were very impressed, especially considering we were a rookie team," says Lurie. "And to see the girls celebrate when they came in first for the research piece—it made me so proud." Lurie also received the regional competition's Outstanding Mentor award, based on recommendations from students and parents at the Hanover Street School.

According to the National Academy of Engineering, women make up nine percent of engineers and 20 percent of engineering students in the United States. These are the numbers that Lurie hopes will increase. She is a mentor for Dartmouth's Women in Science Project, which is devoted to helping women thrive in the fields of science, mathematics, and engineering, and she is a co-leader of Dartmouth's Society of Women Engineers. Lurie and classmate Rose Mutiso '08 came up with the idea to work with middle school girls after they attended a Thayer School of Engineering "Girls Connect" event that paired Dartmouth students with girls ages 9-14 to work on robots. (Mutiso spent the fall term abroad.)

"If you think about the challenges we're facing in areas like energy, medical care, and climate change," says Dean of Thayer School of Engineering Joseph Helble, "you quickly realize that they are connected by a need for better technology. We can't address these problems if we aren't encouraging more young people, and particularly more young girls, to tackle them through careers in science and engineering. Kristen's efforts and those of the other Thayer Schweitzer Fellows are exactly what are needed to show young girls that technology is accessible and fun, and that by being an engineer you can make a difference in people's lives."

Lurie says she received crucial support that kept her dedicated to her interest in science. "My high school science teacher was an amazing advocate for me and my interest in science, and I wanted to be a similar mentor for these girls," she says. "My hope is that this experience will inspire the girls. Two of them have already told me they want to grow up to be engineers, so that's a good sign."

By STEVEN J. SMITH

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Last Updated: 12/17/08