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Genius Junior contestant builds the future at Illinois State

Vivek Abraham walks through the Quad with emeritus professor David Anderson.

Illinois State’s Mind Project recently made an appearance on the NBC program Genius Junior. One of the show’s contestants, 12-year-old Vivek Abraham, has been working alongside Illinois State students, professors, and alumni to create robots for use in classrooms.

For over 20 years, the Mind Project has developed hands-on learning curriculums to introduce students at all levels to cognitive science. The Mind Project is led by David Anderson, who is an emeritus professor in the Department of Philosophy at Illinois State.

Anderson says the Mind Project has virtual curriculums which allow students to do experiments such as implant electrodes into a virtual rat or to build a virtual robot. The only curriculum the Mind Project currently offers a physical item to students is the Knight Rover Robotics project.

The Knight Rover team consists of college students and faculty looking to answer a straightforward question: where does one start if they want to learn how to build robots? To answer this, the Knight Rover team is working to build an affordable robot for students to experiment with and use in the real world.

“In our virtual labs, we have to storyboard and animate every option a student has, which limits them,” Anderson said. “With physical robots, students are only limited by their imagination.”

Abraham joined the Knight Rover team in 2016 and immediately set off on his own projects. One of his biggest accomplishments is building code allowing a robot to move through a maze and learn from its mistakes.

“It is important to understand that Vivek is not using our curriculum, he is creating it,” Anderson said.

As a middle school student, Abraham brings a unique perspective on how to craft a robotics curriculum that will appeal to his peers. John Kuk ’00, M.B.A. ’17 has been working with Knight Rover as a mentor over the past two years and says Abraham’s outlook is essential for the project.

“Vivek is an exceptionally talented middle school student, but he is still a middle school student,” Kuk said. “I don’t process things like he does, so his perspective helps create materials for people his age.”

Abraham says he wants to become an astrophysicist. Kuk believes Abraham can easily achieve his goal, but also says Abraham has the potential to create technology that seems like science fiction today.

“There are technologies today I couldn’t have ever dreamed of,” Kuk said. “Vivek could end up working in fields that don’t yet exist. He could very well end up creating the technologies of the future.”

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