Star Trek inspired the young Charles Higgins to pursue a career that combines engineering, brain research and robotics.
Higgins is one of the Nifty Fifty scientists and engineers chosen to share their personal stories and love of science with school children as part of the USA Science & Engineering Festival to be held in Washington, D.C. this week.
He'll give his talk, "Why aren't robots more like people?" to students in Norristown Area High School in Norristown, Penn. on April 26. He will bring with him things to show and tell, including videos, some small robots and a small statuette of Star Trek's Mr. Sulu that plays the Star Trek theme.
"Science fiction is a good place to get ideas for scientists and engineers," said Higgins, a University of Arizona associate professor of neuroscience. "People in the '60s were thinking of computers that had biological living components as well as artificial components. It was assumed we would have them by now – but we don't."
He also is inspired by biology as he works to build robots that are more lifelike in terms of their ability to move, think and use knowledge to plan. Right now, some of his robots link the visual system of insects with mechanical robots: what the insect sees tells the robot how to move.
"I want to give the students the awareness that it's possible to do this stuff – that it's not just science fiction, and that you, personally, can get involved in this," said Higgins, who also has a joint appointment in UA's department of electrical and computer engineering.
The USA Science & Engineering Festival is the largest celebration of science and engineering in the country. Festival Executive Director Larry Bock said about sending an elite contingent of scientists and engineers to speak to middle and high school students, "This is like a TED conference for kids, bringing them together with leading experts and researchers in the field of technology."
Hosted by Lockheed Martin, the festival has asked more than 100 science and engineering institutions to send their top researchers as speakers to inspire students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or the STEM fields. AT&T also is providing support for the effort.
"We hope that by meeting some of these innovators who love what they do, students will embrace these disciplines and consider careers in them," Bock said.
The USA Science & Engineering Festival Expo, to be held in Washington, D.C. the weekend of April 28-29, will have more than 2,000 exhibits and stage shows in science and technology.
The USA Science & Engineering Festival, the country's only national science festival, was developed to increase public awareness of the importance of science and to encourage youth to pursue careers in science and engineering by celebrating science in much the same way as we celebrate Hollywood celebrities, professional athletes and pop stars.