Stanford geeks ‘hang out’ on White House panel

Last week, ALLISON OKAMURA, associate professor of mechanical engineering, and ANN MAJEWICZ, one of her graduate students, hung out with Obama administration officials and researchers across the country to talk robotics.

Okamura, an expert on how robots and human computer interfaces can be used to improve human health and quality of life, was invited to participate in a Google+ Hangout panel discussion as part of an initiative hosted by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). Titled We the Geeks, the series is designed to highlight the future of science, technology and innovation in the United States.

Okamura and Majewicz participated by live feed from campus. Robotics experts at MIT, Carnegie Mellon, Texas A&M and Rethink Robotics, a private company, joined them on the panel. Novelist JOHN GREEN participated in the discussion as well.

Allison Okamura, foreground, with graduate student Ann Majewicz

“The experience was fantastic. Participating in an online conversation with robotics colleagues from across the country was surprisingly easy and natural,” Okamura said in an email after the event.

During the discussion, Majewicz demonstrated her needle-steering robot, designed to perform minimally invasive medical procedures.

Okamura and other panelists fielded questions from the White House OSTP moderators and from live Tweets.

“I was glad that questions were raised about encouraging women to join the field of robotics; this is something I’m very passionate about,” Okamura said.

“Clearly, the public understands the value of robotics in encouraging students to enter STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] careers, and they are appropriately concerned about how we can make these experiences accessible to as many students as possible. My lab is particularly interested in designing low-cost, hands-on robotics laboratory kits that can accompany online learning experiences.”

This is not the first time Stanford researchers have participated in the “We the Geeks” program. In July, ZHENAN BAO, professor of chemical engineering, participated in a panel titled The Stuff Superheroes Are Made Of. That event was timed to coincide with Comic-Con, the annual comic book convention in San Diego. The “We the Geeks” event, however, was meant to highlight breakthroughs in materials science – such as touch-sensitive synthetic skin – that may have once seemed the stuff of fantasy, but are now being developed for practical uses.

In May, SEBASTIAN THRUN, research professor of computer science, participated in the White House’s “We the Geeks” kickoff. Thrun discussed online education as part of a panel titled Grand Challenges.

“It’s wonderful that the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has taken such an interest in communicating with the public about advances and opportunities in the field of robotics,” Okamura said. “Including demonstrations helps show the public where our technology is and how far we have to go.”