WASHINGTON, D.C. - Brendan Byrne told clusters of young people at the USA Science and Engineering Festival about how a rainbow of colored toy bricks led to his University of Michigan undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering.

Byrne and five other engineers from the Computational and Information Sciences Directorate (CISD), U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL), shared their personal stories about using lego-type toys, building models and taking things apart. They also discussed the ARL small robotics technology they help develop.

ARL's small robotics team featured a maze for semi-autonomous systems on an aisle with six other Research, Development and Engineering Command (RDECOM) subordinate organizations at the second annual festival, which was held April 28 to 30 at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C.

The robotics team talked about the development of capabilities to allow robots to have humanlike patterns without relying closely on humans, but basically, Byrne, a Michigan native, said, "I get to play with robots all day."

With one engineer manning the controls on one side of a divider and others posted in front of a robotics maze, passersby wondered who was moving the robot.

"They think the robot is moving by itself until we tell them what's going on," said Dave Baran, a computer engineer who works on creating intelligence for small robots. "When we tell them another student is operating the machine, they want to do it too."

The engineers saw thousands of visitors over the course of three days at what was billed as "the largest celebration of science in the USA."

Distinguished visitors to the booth included Dale Ormond, RDECOM director, who brought his daughters and was accompanied by RDECOM Command Sgt. Maj. Lebert O. Beharie.

"I am frankly amazed at all the displays, and the energy of the children who are absolutely engaged," Ormond said.

Also a distinguished guest, ARL's director, John Miller, experienced the Army Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Asset Vehicle during his visit. The STEM asset is a futuristic multi-media simulation that takes visitors on a visual trip to 2032.

"This is the future of our country," Miller said. "We're here to encourage these young people to be the next generation of scientists and engineers."

"Our scientists, engineers and all of the professionals who ... do research and produce technologies to help our Soldiers do their jobs and come back alive are ARL's most important resource," Miller said.

The technology that engineers presented at the science festival for fun has the real-world application of helping Soldiers complete building-mapping missions significantly faster using advanced robotics interfaces. Consequently, it could give Soldiers better situational awareness on the battlefield.

Youths gained an understanding of situational awareness as they maneuvered the demonstration robot without having the ability to see the big picture on the other side of the divider. They could only see the camera display.

"I want to give someone a different view of what science and engineering is all about," said Jeff Twigg, an engineer with CISD. "Fun science isn't just what children see on television. It can be whatever you want it to be."

The interactive demonstration booths representing RDECOM showcased 3D scanning, water filtration, food science and more. Approximately 3,000 exhibitors participated in the Lockheed Martin-hosted finale expo.