Local Partnership Wins IEEE Foundation Grant to Support STEM Education

For nearly a century, science fiction writers have imagined a future in which robots, indistinguishable from humans, interact and function in normal human societies.

Students from The Forge Initiative interact with KEN during an outreach event.  Photo courtesy of Grayson Randall.
Students from The Forge Initiative interact with KEN during an outreach event. Photo courtesy of Grayson Randall.

For thousands of students across North Carolina, that future is now. The Eastern North Carolina Section of the IEEE has been awarded an IEEE Foundation Grant to advance STEM Education through the use of humanoid robotics. The grant, titled “STEM Outreach Using Student-Built Humanoid Robots,” will help fund a year-long mentoring and outreach program designed to bring cutting-edge robotics technologies to students and families across North Carolina. 

Funding from the grant will support a partnership between the Eastern North Carolina Section of the IEEE and The Forge Initiative, a STEM education nonprofit based out of Cary, North Carolina. Volunteer mentors from the two organizations will work with middle and high school students to assemble and customize humanoid robots based on an existing prototype. Students will also learn to present the robots at STEM outreach events across North Carolina, providing opportunities for at least 4,000 people to interact with the robots.

The existing prototype, nicknamed Ken, was developed by the Eastern North Carolina Section Robotics and Automation chapter as part of a challenge to build a robot “indistinguishable from a human.” Ken made his official debut in March 2015 at the IEEE North Carolina RoboResearch Seminar, and has been delighting adults and children alike ever since. According to Project Director Grayson Randall, “It is wonderful to see how excited students get when engaged in spontaneous natural-language discussion with a robot.  You can see their interest growing with every word.  We hoped to expand this program dramatically to encourage more interest in STEM careers.  We just needed the perfect partner.”

The Forge Initiative is that partner. Linda Whipker, President of The Forge Initiative, stated, “Our mission is to focus on youth development and leadership through hands-on STE(Art)M education and community engagement. Working with the IEEE will allow us to add another dimension to our offerings.” Together, the IEEE and The Forge Initiative will help the future engineers of North Carolina bring about the future of robotics.

About the IEEE Foundation

As the philanthropic arm of IEEE, the IEEE Foundation inspires the generosity of donors so it may enable IEEE programs that enhance technology access, literacy and education, as well as support the IEEE professional community.

The IEEE Foundation, a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization in the United States, fulfills its purpose by soliciting and managing donations, recognizing the generosity of our donors, awarding grants to IEEE grassroots projects of strategic importance, supporting high impact Signature Programs, serving as a steward of donations that empower bright minds, recognize innovation and preserve the history of technology. With donor support, the IEEE Foundation strives to be a leader in transforming lives through the power of technology and education.

Nov 12, 2015 Heroes & Villains at the Museum of Life and Science

On the evening of November 12, 2015, at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, NC, KEN and the IEEE ENCS Humanoid Robot Project Team were one of 25 special attractions brought in by the museum for their adults-only Heroes & Villains 2015 event.  This event encouraged guests to come in costume and enjoy the special attractions at the museum.  KEN, dressed in a Batman t-shirt, met approximately 160 guests and museum staff during the 3 hour event.


Lixiao, Rodney, and Daniel staffed the event on behalf of the team.  The dolls helped to demonstrate KEN’s face recognition abilities.


The Freeze was just one of many superheroes and costumed characters KEN met at this event.  And, no, KEN cannot learn to recognize your face if you are wearing goggles and a plastic bowl on your head.

KEN at Envision Science Academy

On Thursday, October 29, 2015, KEN visited with hundreds of students from K through 7th grade at Envision Science Academy in Raleigh.  The students were brought in to see KEN in groups by grade.  Seven sessions were given to allow all the grades in the school a chance to see and interact with KEN.  Grayson warmed up the crowd for each session with probing questions about what engineering is and what it means to be an engineer.  Daniel then demonstrated KEN’s features, helped students to interact with KEN directly, and answered the student’s questions about how KEN works and was made.  Lixiao was also present to record the reactions of the audience to KEN.  This event provided more data for her upcoming research paper on human-robot interaction to be presented at a conference on humanoid robots.

The humanoid robot project team extends its thanks and appreciation to the Envision school and teachers who provided a warm welcome to KEN and facilitated a busy and effective day.  We also thank the students who were energetic and enthusiastic to learn and interact with KEN.  Your many questions and insights were an inspiration for the team.



IEEE ENCS Member Recognition Event

On Thursday, September 24, 2015, KEN made an appearance in the terrace dining room at the Lonnie Poole Golf Course Clubhouse at NCSU.  Members of the IEEE Eastern NC Section were present for a time of networking and recognition for service to IEEE.  Newly elevated IEEE senior members were also recognized.  Many of those present came up and interacted with KEN.

Getting caught up

The IEEE ENCS Humanoid Robot team has been working hard on KEN the humanoid robot, but we haven’t done a great job of keeping up with our website.  To catch you up on all that’s happened this year, here’s a quick rundown of progress thus far in 2015.

  • KEN was first presented to the public on March 6, 2015 at the IEEE RoboResearch conference in Charlotte, NC.  The team worked hard in the months leading up to this event to go from just a collection of ideas to a working robot that ran all day without crashing.
  • Following the RoboResearch event, we embarked on some hardware upgrades.  The old MacMini’s just didn’t have the power to run all the processing, so we were having to offload processing to laptops and off board CPU’s.  To make it easier to take KEN around to demos, we needed to get all the processing on board and improve the startup and shutdown software.  We purchased an I7 motherboard with 16GB RAM and a solid state hard drive.  We also wrote an Android app to provide a simple interface for starting and stopping the system.  With these upgrades, KEN is much more self-contained.
  • KEN’s first event after the upgrades was a joint show with The Forge Initiative on July 18, 2015, at The Underground in Durham, NC.  This was our first event where the student members of The Forge Initiative were able to take the lead in demonstrating KEN to the public.
  • The next big event for KEN was the July 25, 2015, IEEE Family Day at Jordan Lake.  Many people got to meet and interact with KEN under the picnic pavilion.  This was the first time we had attempted to operate KEN with only a cellphone WiFi hot-spot for Internet access.  It worked great.
  • A few of us took KEN down to Charlotte, NC again on August 20, 2015.  We had the privilege of presenting the project to the IEEE section meeting there, where we received enormous interest from the crowd, especially the students.  For this event, KEN was upgraded with the ability to present facts about himself, so that he actually did a portion of the presentation in question/answer.  Unfortunately, KEN’s neck failed after this event, and he had to undergo surgery to reattach his head before going out again.
  • KEN’s latest event was another joint event with The Forge Initiative at Marbles Children’s museum in downtown Raleigh, NC.  KEN had the chance to meet and interact with about 170 people at this event.  The background noise in the room was so loud that it overwhelmed his speech recognition ability.  He got a lot of, “He’s creepy!” compliments, though.

KEN at the Underground in Durham on July 18, 2015


This event was open to the public and brought many families with children through to see the variety of robot displays set up by members of The Forge Initiative who organized the event.  The IEEE ENCS Humanoid Robot Project was invited to show KEN.

Students from The Forge Initiative interact with KEN during an outreach event.  Photo courtesy of Grayson Randall.
Students from The Forge Initiative interact with KEN during an outreach event. Photo courtesy of Grayson Randall.