Retirees Meet Robots — Both Win: UMass Lowell’s Learning in Retirement Association Helps Retired Professionals Maintain Active Minds

On her knees, a woman is “face-to-face” with a robot as the operator explains its special features. She is too enthralled to stop for a formal photo.

“Now? But I’m learning here!” says Toby Hodes, president of UMass Lowell’s Learning in Retirement Association (LIRA), while touring the university’s New England Robotics Validation and Experimentation (NERVE) Center.

The event was an intense introduction to a hotbed of innovation — robotics research and development. Massachusetts is a national leader in robotics research and business. According to the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council (MTLC), a statewide industry group, the state boasts about 35 academic research programs and more than 100 robotics companies. Those firms employ 3,200 people and are generating about $1.9 billion in revenue annually, according to the MTLC. Robots are showing up everywhere—for use in defense, marine research and exploration, health care, assistive technology, industrial and lab automation, consumer products and education.

With demand growing fast, testing the robots in realistic environments is especially important. The NERVE Center is one of only three comprehensive test facilities in the country, using protocols developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the U.S. Army.

Retirees & Robots Main

Learning about robots, members of UMass Lowell’s Learning in Retirement Association (LIRA) Simone Allard, Jeri Durant, Toby Hodes (kneeling), Ron Cannistraro, Marjorie Short and Russ McLeod listen to Adam Norton, manager of the NERVE Center, where new robot designs are tested. Photo by Kevin Harkins.

“There is no pass or fail to the testing,” explains Adam Norton, manager of the NERVE Center. “Our work is to characterize each robot’s function under differing conditions.”

The LIRA visitors examined the various obstacle courses set up for robots to traverse — across gravel of just the right size to jam mechanisms, up a steeply inclined plane, over an uneven surface made of blocks, up and down stairs of various sizes, or “swimming” across a watercourse. Robots can be tested on their ability to search for and retrieve small objects, for endurance (running out the battery), for “throwability” (yes, the robot is actually thrown), and for combination tasks, such as climbing stairs in heavy rain.

Not surprisingly, LIRA visitors asked many questions. What about autonomous robots? Medical applications? Airborne robots? LIRA has increased its membership to more than 150 and marked its 25th anniversary in 2013 — and not by underestimating the capabilities and interests of retirees.

Many members come from scientific, medical, engineering and other professional careers. Learning something completely new — and crossing subject boundaries to do so — is often mentioned as one benefit of membership.

“I can learn all the stuff I never had a chance to when I was working,” says Hodes, who graduated from Lowell Technological Institute, UMass Lowell’s precursor, in 1958 with a degree in textile engineering, one of very few women in that field. “It’s a pleasure to explore literature, art, history.”

James Youngberg, a retired electrical engineer, uses a different strategy. “I chose the day, Thursdays, instead of the subject area,” he says. “Mornings we cover foreign affairs, and afternoons it’s astrophysics — directly orthogonal topics, with a group of inquisitive people.”

Robots have to operate over rough terrain — designers have to be creative. Photo by Kevin Harkins.

Robots have to operate over rough terrain — designers have to be creative. Photo by Kevin Harkins.

The latest research supports the importance of challenging oneself to learn new things while aging. A study published in the journal “Psychological Science” compared participants over age 60 who were randomly assigned to one of three groups: to learn a new skill in a class, to socialize on group outings, or to play word games and watch documentaries. After three months, only the classroom learning group showed improvement on memory tests.

Intense learning characterizes many LIRA offerings. In addition to online courses and discussions led by members, LIRA draws on the intellectual riches of UMass Lowell by having professors as speakers and teachers.

“The professors have well-organized material. They’re excellent speakers,” says Alan Kent, a retired medical doctor. “When [history professor] Bob Forrant teaches an eight-week course on the labor movement, his classes are standing room only.”

UMass Lowell also benefits from the vitality and enthusiasm of LIRA. Members raise funds to provide three $1,500 student scholarships every year, facilitate sessions for visiting speakers, are self-governing, and serve as willing subjects for student research projects.

“We talk a lot about entrepreneurship at UMass Lowell, and LIRA shows there are no age boundaries to innovation when it comes to learning,” says Paul Marion, executive director of community and cultural affairs. “LIRA members invent the program each year and give back to the community at the same time. It’s a lively partnership in keeping with the spirit of a public university.”


Learning in Retirement Association (LIRA)
Lowell, Mass.
(978) 934-3135

New England Robotics Validation and Experimentation (NERVE) Center
Lowell, Mass.
(978) 934-6600


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