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"Let's hold on to that thought for a few seconds, okay? Until the train goes by," says James McLurkin, the brilliant, energetic 30-year-old MIT graduate student in Computer Science, selected recently to receive the Lemelson-MIT Program's ninth annual $30,000 Student Prize for Inventiveness. Gazing raptly out of his apartment window in Somerville, Mass., as the rumble of the commuter train outside subsides, he considers building a layout for his miniature trains to circle around the room. He then observes, "Model railroading has been my inspiration, hobby and teaching tool ever since I was in grade school."

It is easy to see why the judging panel chose McLurkin for his initiative, creativity and extraordinary inventiveness, as he continues to explain how he used model railroading as a teaching tool. He kept his tenth-grade Civil Engineering college-prep classes "fun by injecting locomotion into the mix" and encouraging his students to build functional bridges over challenging terrain connected by a small operational railroad.

Well beyond the relatively simple mechanics of model railroading, McLurkin has helped to expand the frontiers of microrobotics. His inventions range from the smallest self-contained mobile robots ever built (measuring just over one inch per side) to his current research project: constructing a fleet of autonomous robots to work together in conducting cooperative, real-world tasks. How does he define 'Research'? "To turn the spigot of invention and innovation all the way open, 24 hours a day, then adapt and learn from the lessons that nature provides to us."

As part of his research, McLurkin is developing algorithms and techniques for programming 'swarms' of autonomous robots to interact in ways that mimic the behavior of bees, such as their abilities to cluster, disperse, follow and orbit. Each of the robots is built to accomplish individual tasks that support the overall objective of the group. "You program them at the group level, understanding how the complex interactions between individual agents produce global behaviors, as in societies of bees, termites and ants. End result: Put your theory to practice. There are many practical applications for robot swarms: like finding land mines, exploring caves, or searching through earthquake rubble."

Following these principles, McLurkin designed the Swarm Orchestra, a group of 20-30 robots that play music together. For a 2002 Swarm Orchestra Holiday Concert, the robots played Carol of the Bells and other seasonal tunes. It was also during this season that McLurkin revisited a childhood pasttime and constructed a 15-pound Star Wars "Star Destroyer" Lego™ spaceship, which now rests on top of his TV set.

From Simple Inventions to Swarm Robots
From the age of seven, McLurkin spent many inventive hours reconstructing and enhancing toys and electronic devices. "I developed a passion for locomotion in many forms: from radio-controlled car-kits and extreme bicycling to off-road motorcycling; all lots of fun," he says. Influenced by his parents' love of nature and their voracious viewing of nature programs on PBS, McLurkin also began to develop a keen interest in exploring and learning from the principles of nature.

McLurkin invented his first robot, Rover, in 1988, during his sophomore year in high school. Less than ten years later, as an undergraduate student at MIT, he had built twelve cubic-inch robots, making them simulate the behavior of an ant colony. McLurkin's robotic ants are currently being featured as part of Invention at Play, an interactive, traveling exhibit that focuses on the similarities between the way children and adults play and the creative processes used by innovators in science and technology.

Since Fall 1999, McLurkin has worked as Lead Scientist and Manager for the Swarm Robotics Project at iRobot in Somerville, Mass., developing paradigms for large communities of autonomous robots. His team has designed and built 100 small robots that use relatively short-range line-of-sight infrared communication/localization programs to compute their relative positions. "James' robots are amazingly elegant and robust. He gets them all out of a giant suitcase, turns them on, designates one to be the leader, and they begin to do remarkable things," states his advisor, Leslie Pack Kaelbling, Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at MIT.

Rodney A. Brooks, Director of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and Co-founder and Chairman of iRobot, oversees McLurkin's research in a collegial way. "Rodney's got a biologically inspired mindset, like me," observes McLurkin. "He encourages me to study natural systems and develop them in my swarm robots."

Make Learning Creative and Fun
"Invention touches every aspect of being a graduate student and an engineer," McLurkin asserts. He is dedicated to teaching teens the importance and significance of invention, motivating them to get involved in the world of science. McLurkin teaches college-preparatory classes with toys, including Lego™ bricks and model trains.

In the spring of 1996, he taught an MIT Integrated Studies program module on Engineering using 10 remote controlled cars and a chalkboard. He also taught four years of Interphase Physics, giving special lectures on skateboard and from his bicycle, becoming a living lecture demo.

In 2002, he taught a civil engineering class to tenth graders as part of The Saturday Engineering Enrichment and Discovery (SEED) Academy at MIT, a four-year, college preparatory and career exploration program serving promising urban high school students in Boston and Cambridge, Mass. "The fun of the small trains camouflaged the learning and made the whole process much more palatable for the students," explains McLurkin. This year, he will teach a SEED class in aero-astronomical engineering.

McLurkin, who is also a Lemelson Minority Engineering Fellow (an honor that was not disclosed to the 2003 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize judging panel), earned his Bachelor's degree in Electrical Engineering from MIT and expects to complete his Ph.D. in Computer Science in 2006. Before returning to MIT, he earned his Master's degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of California, Berkeley.

He also spent several years as a consultant for companies such as Walt Disney Imagineering and for SensAble Technologies (founded by 1995 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize Winner, Thomas Massie) on many projects involving mechanical and electrical engineering. Massie, a formative influence and long-time friend of McLurkin, notes, "I once tried to recruit James to take a high-paying job at my company. His reply was, "You don't understand, I'm living the dream here at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab, building and inventing, and you can't get me out of this sandbox." Being an inventor myself, I knew exactly what he meant (as long as he has enough money to eat and oxygen to breathe, his top priority is to make sure he is in the perfect environment to do what he lives for — inventing."

And how does he define 'Invention'? "Cast your net wide to rebuild that device — whatever it is — from scratch in your own way so it works. Take that bolt of lightning you get in the middle of the night and hurry up and get it done!"

McLurkin is also a co-author of "Tomorrow's Surgery: Micromotors and Microrobots for Minimally Invasive Procedures," and has been invited to speak at universities across the nation.

About the Lemelson-MIT Program
Based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, MA, the Lemelson-MIT Program was established in 1994 by the late independent inventor Jerome H. Lemelson and his wife, Dorothy. The Program's mission is to raise the stature of inventors and innovators and to foster invention and innovation among young people. It accomplishes this by celebrating inventor/innovator role models through outreach activities and annual awards, including the world's largest for invention, the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize. The Lemelson-MIT Program is funded by The Lemelson Foundation, which supports other invention initiatives at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, Hampshire College, the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance and the University of Nevada, Reno. For more information about the Lemelson-MIT Program, please visit its newly redesigned Web site at http://web.mit.edu/invent/.

About Invention At Play
Invention at Play was developed by the Lemelson Center at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in partnership with the Science Museum of Minnesota and with support from The Lemelson Foundation and the National Science Foundation. For more information on Invention at Play, visit http://www.si.edu/lemelson/centerpieces/iap/

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