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Kids learn engineering can be cool

Kids learn engineering can be cool

Ray Almgren joined National Instruments in 1987 as an applications engineer. He spent 10 years as a product manager prior to becoming director of engineering. In his current role as vice president, product strategy, he leads a team of senior product managers and technologists that focus on a strategy for development and positioning of NI's measurement and automation products. Involved since the beginning of NI's Robolab programs, he is a strong believer in education. Almgren received a BS in Electrical Engineering from the University of Texas, Austin.

National Instruments is highly involved in bringing science and technology to elementary schools in the Austin area. The company donates equipment and funds, and more than 50 employees donate their time to the Robolab program that uses Lego building blocks and NI software to expose students of all ages to technology.

DESIGN NEWS: Employees donate thousands of hours of their time to this program. What's in it for NI?

ALMGREN: At NI, our social mission is to improve education in our community and to encourage more young people to become scientists and engineers. Obviously we are looking to make a positive impact on the community, but a secondary benefit is that our employees know that they are working for a company that cares about education and is trying to give something back to the community.

Q: How did you get this program started?

A: Interestingly enough, this wasn't something that the company officers started or that evolved out of a corporate edict. It was a grass roots efforts started by some of the employees who wanted to make a difference. We initially got involved in 1998 when Lego asked us to develop a version of our LabVIEW software for use with a new Mindstorms product that would be marketed to elementary schools. At that time, I asked Chris Rogers, a professor at Tufts University who had the original idea for the product, what we could do for him to support the program. Personally, he didn't want anything from us, but he did ask us to do something in Austin with the elementary schools.

Q: How does the program work?

A: You can't bring this program to the schools successfully without first training the teachers. So we partnered with UT Austin, who already had a program established through its mechanical engineering department to teach elementary school teachers about science and technology. Each summer, they run workshop sessions to teach the basic principles of Robolab. At that time, each NI volunteer teams up with a specific teacher. They will then work with that teacher in the classroom for one to two hours per week during the school year. In addition, we sponsor a competition during our annual user conference and trade show.

Q: How many students and teachers have you reached in the three years you've been running this program and what kind of an impact have you made?

A: We've trained about 100 teachers over the course of the program and reached about 1,500 kids this year alone. And although we're not keeping specific statistics, we believe that we are making a positive impact. Some of the stories we hear are really great. An autistic child at one of the schools, for example, has improved his communication skills through the Robolab program and displayed an incredible talent for working with algorithms and control logic. We feel enough encouragement about the program that we are contemplating rolling it out to other U.S. cities by partnering with schools and companies.

Q: What advice would you give to engineers who may be thinking about starting up a similar program in their area?

A: First and foremost, you have to have three partners involved: A local school district, a local college or university, and the company itself. The importance of the university involvement is that it provides a repeatable, dependable mechanism for teaching the teachers. Otherwise, a company might feel really good about donating equipment to schools, but it won't go anywhere from there.

Q: Who can people contact at NI for more information about your program?

A: Julianne Bash, Community Relations Manager, at (512) 683-5383 or [email protected].

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