Oy, Robot


Jeremy Lautman has to go a long way this summer to beat what he did last year, which included co-creating a robot that could sing "Hava Negillah."

Part of last summer was much more than simply fun in the sun for the 18-year-old, an extremely gifted high school senior who attends Philadelphia's William Penn Charter School. His summer included a special science challenge in Israel.

As one of a group of 80 high-schoolers from around the world, Lautman spent most of last August at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology – Israel's leading science and technology university – in its SciTech Program, a live-in science and technology regimen that allows 11th- and 12th-graders to conduct hands-on research in robotics, aerospace science, genetics, neural networks, image processing (analyzing a picture through techniques that identify shades, colors and relationships unseen by the human eye), waste-water treatment and sleep research.

Students from South America, Europe, Asia and Israel joined the 23 Americans who participated in the program.

For Lautman – who'd been to Israel twice before with his mother Sue, his father Martin, and his brothers Philip, 17, and Michael, 15 – the work he did at the Technion in robotics proved to be an award-winning effort. He partnered with fellow student Danny Wudka from Reseda, Calif.; and with prominent scientists, especially Igor Verner, senior lecturer, in the Technion's department of education in technology and science on a bipedal dancing robot.

Evgeny Korchnoy, a Ph.D. candidate, served as mentor for the project.

What's in a Name?
"The robot's name is DJEX, and it's about 10-inches tall. He works on six servo-motors powered by computer, which also tells it what to do. I had never worked in robotics before. That was my first experience; however, I had worked with programming before," explained Lautman.

His mother, Sue Lautman, said that "Jeremy has always been interested in manipulative toys, such as Legos and Construx, and in building things, as are Philip and Michael."

At the conclusion of the four-week SciTech Program, each research group must prepare a written report and oral presentation for a plenary assembly of peers and professors. These reports are later published, and each participant receives a certificate of completion. Many of the students obtain credit for their summer work from either their high schools or the universities they plan to attend.

"At SciTech, Danny and I won first place for our project and poster of it, and third place for our presentation," said Lautman.

SciTech participants get a taste of college life at the Technion's Haifa campus. They live in university dormitories, participate in cultural and social activities, and have full access to the university's advanced computer services, athletic facilities and laboratories.

The Lautmans, who reside in Merion, are members of Temple Beth Hillel/Beth El in Wynnewood, where Jeremy, Philip and Michael are in Hebrew school. Jeremy will also be graduating from Gratz Hebrew High School soon with an education degree that will enable him to teach Hebrew school.

In the fall of 2005, Lautman and Wudka's dancing robot project garnered accolades at the seventh annual International Robot Olympiad in Seoul, Korea. While Wudka traveled to Seoul to represent the project, Lautman had school and other commitments that kept him home. Their project was awarded a gold medal, and so impressed the judges that it was the only high school project presented to members of the Korean Ministries of Science and Technology, Commerce and Trade, and other important authorities.

The robot danced authentically and convincingly to "Hava Negillah" at the Korean competition.

As the teen explained: "The robot could be programmed potentially to dance to anything. We'd have to go in and break down the song into individual phrases, and then time the movement, so potentially it could dance to rap, reggae, reggaton or salsa, if you wanted."

Jeremy has secured early admission to the Jerome Fisher Management and Technology Program at the University of Pennsylvania, where he'll be a freshman in the fall. Upon graduation from the program, he said, he'll earn an engineering degree, as well as a degree from the Wharton School of Business.

"I'm very interested in combining engineering and business to create an educational-toy company," said Lautman. "After attending SciTech, I realized the extent to which robotics can excite kids about math, science and engineering. I feel that by combining robotics with a strong education in engineering, I can encourage kids to pursue careers in technology."

For more information about this year's SciTech Program, which is currently recruiting students, visit the American Technion online at: www.ats. org.



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