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NMSU "Lego Lab" helps students learn robotics, builds interest in engineering

White coats, safety glasses and serious scientists are what most of us would expect to see in an engineering lab. However, in one lab at New Mexico State University's College of Engineering researchers have been using a favorite childhood building block to stir creativity and problem solving skills in thousands of students for a quarter of a century.


Yu-Ping Tang sitting in his lab
Yu-Ping Tang is the on-site engineer in the Controls and Automation Lab (CAL) also known as the "Lego Lab" at New Mexico State University's Manufacturing Technology and Engineering Center (M-TEC). (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

The Controls and Automation Lab (CAL) is a sector of the Manufacturing Technology and Engineering Center (M-TEC) and is an instructional lab that specializes in teaching industrial controls and automation.

Appropriately nicknamed the "Lego Lab," this facility specializes in support for high school robotics competitions, workshops to educate teachers about robotics and competitions to build student interest in engineering through the use of specialized Lego training kits that result in the completion of a small robot.

Yu-Ping Tang, the on-site engineer, developed the bright red training kits, which function at three levels of difficulty, with 15 exercises at each level. They all contain motors, various mechanisms, sensors, controls and, of course, Legos. Intricate picture diagrams give students step-by-step instructions on how to build the robots.

Tang has worked with approximately 5,000 to 6,000 regional students since he started at M-TEC. According to Tang, the Lego robots follow the same principles as real life devices and use the same system processes and design.

"If you like this kind of work, engineering is for you, but other majors are welcome?hands on can apply to other aspects of life," Tang said.

The Lego Lab began as a portable "tech mobile," which was taken to local schools to promote interest in robotics and machinery. It has since evolved into the facility it is today, which has catered to 1,500 to 2,500 visitors a year for the last 25 years.

"It is the most visited lab in the College of Engineering," said Anthony Hyde, supervisor of M-TEC.

There are a variety of robots?one navigates a maze, then locates and extinguishes a flame; a robot climbs up the wall using vacuum technology; and a "Lego Automotive Manufacturing Plant" demonstrates every step that goes into building cars, from detailing to quality control, all within a few square feet.

The age groups Tang works with are just as diverse as the types of robots in his lab. The M-TEC employee works with students at the elementary level all the way up to those in college-level electronics classes.

According to Hyde, kids really enjoy the hands-on, interactive experiences they get from the lab and the lessons they learn from Tang. "They see Yu-Ping at the grocery store and kids go, 'Hey, it's the Lego man!'"

Tang has since worked on many other projects with various age groups as well as individual projects with the Space Alliance Technology Outreach Program (SATOP).

Hyde explained that Tang's job does not require him to work in the Lego Lab. As a senior engineer his responsibility is to provide small business assistance and work with projects such as SATOP, but he volunteers to run the lab.

"Yu-Ping is a very technical and analytical person, but shares a big part of his job to help and volunteer with kids," Hyde said. "The College of Engineering is very fortunate to have Yu-Ping," Hyde said.

On a typical tour day, Tang will have 250 kids come by, with 50 in the room at once sitting on the floor doing activities. What students learn in the lab can go far beyond robotics. Hyde recalled one student who worked with Tang coaching youngsters in the Lego Lab, some of whom came from broken homes. Hyde said the student who taught them became a kind of father figure for them because he cared so much.

"It was like a mother duck leading eight or 10 kids in this robotic competition," Hyde joked of the group. "This had a major impact on the kids' lives, and they could never have that experience without the Lego Lab."