2003 WINNER OF THE $30,000 LEMELSON-MIT
STUDENT PRIZE FOR INVENTIVENESS
"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
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
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/
top of page