Leadership Company, YMCA Partner To Teach Problem Solving Through Robotics

Aug 10, 2016

When students at the Homewood-Brushton YMCA are gone for the weekend, an app-controlled robot can now drop food pellets into their fish tank.

“We thought, what would you like to do?” said Russ White, vice president of technology strategy for Development Dimensions International. “Through talking to them we thought there’s probably a solution there.”   

White’s company focuses on human-centered design, or designing with a specific person or group in mind, to develop leadership training software. His company paired up with the YMCA for a weeklong innovation camp, held at DDI’s Bridgeville offices.  

The students at the Homewood Y Creator Space were concerned about the fish in their hydroponic system over the weekend. Jason McCoy and Katie Novotny, both software engineers for DDI, came up with the idea of the app-controlled fish feeder as a solution to a problem. They attached a camera so the students can watch the fish from a smartphone. 

The engineers walked the students through how they solved the problem and used it as an example of human-centered design.

Nick Jaramillo, program director of the Y Creator Space at the YMCA of Greater Pittsburgh, said he sought out DDI to teach the design concept. Human-centered design might seem like common sense for a developer – it involves solving a problem with a tailored design for the person it’s helping. But White said it’s also about asking the right questions.

DDI software engineers designed a system to drop pellets from pvc pipe to feed fish remotely.
Credit Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA

“(It’s) a methodology to solve problems,” Jaramillo said, adding that the Hilltop and Homewood YMCAs also focus on STEM, or science, technology, engineering and math.

Jaramillo said students of the YMCA’s creator space put their newly-learned concepts into practice by coming up with designs for someone else.

“They have to interview one of their partners or a community person and figure out what their needs and wants and desires are and then empathize with that in order to make a better design,” he said.

Keon Benson-Mach, 12, of Homewood, said he liked seeing the results of building something from scratch.

Benson-Mach helped build a robotic car. He was able to program a pattern the car would move through.

“I think I’m more interested in engineering more after that,” he said. “Now I would like to program different things and build different things.”

The students also used wearable technology that reads brain waves and moves a robotic car when the user blinks. 

The Remake Learning series is a collaboration of 90.5 WESA, WQED, Pittsburgh Magazine and NEXTpittsburgh.