The nuts and bolts of robotics

Jacob Lane · Wednesday, August 2, 2017
Legos helped open up the world of engineering, July 24-28, thanks to the University of Iowa College of Engineering STEM Robotics Summer Camp.

“The best part was the car race,” said Javier Andrade, 10, “Everybody got to make cars and then we raced them. We also made modifications to make them go faster.”

Javier was among the 80 West Liberty students, grades K-7th, that gathered at West Liberty High School where students not only built robots, but programmed them as well.

“I learned a lot about engineering and about how you do engineering,” chimed in 9-year-old Kevin Hazen. He and Javier were partnered together for the big finale project in Friday.

In front of them sat a bright green Lego snake. Thanks to some quick drag-and-drop programming tools, Kevin made the half-foot long robot open and close its mouth.

Nearby was a praying mantis by partners Xavier Baker, 10, and William, 9. Using an I-pad they were able to make the mantis extend its arms back and forth.

The four students were part of the Junior Robotics 2 Class. They presented their final projects to their peers and parents on Friday, July 28. Everybody was all smiles.

The purpose of the engineering day camp was to improve the students ability in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, shortened to STEM in the field of education.

“Our primary goal is to really engage the kids into learning more about STEM and build their interests,” said Director Tracey Peterson. “We want to increase their knowledge, we want to open doors to them that they have never seen before.”

The University of Iowa program has been going on for more than 10 years. However, it’s really built up momentum in the last two or three years.

While it’s been present in quite a few cities in Iowa, this was the first year for the Engineering STEM Robotics Summer Camp in West Liberty. It was quite the success.

“We have aspects of robotics in our program, we utilize the Lego programs that are available to education institutions across the country,” adds Peterson.

There were four different classes for four different age ranges at the camp. The youngest students in the ‘Simple Machine’ class focused on creating gears, bullies, wheels and axels.

A step up in Junior Robotics One and Two, students learned language arts along with engineering. They created a story around their robots while programming them to move.

Finally, Robotics One was the most advanced class. Student learn how to program robots to move and make decisions on their own using the language of C++.

Participants in the oldest class built ‘Sumo’ bots. There was a tournament, during which the robots pushed each other out of giant circular ring on table in front of the classroom.

To be successful, the students had to program autonomous robots to not only push their competition, but to recognize the black line of the circle and retreat from it if they got too close.

“It took us the whole week,” said Isaac, 11, who was teamed up with Dominic. “We had to change a lot of things. The hardest part was figuring out the turning.”

The U of I STEM Robotics Summer Camp was brought to West Liberty thanks to Ed Moreno and the West Liberty Dream Catchers.

The hope is to bring it back next year while adding a fifth classroom in order to have even more advanced robotics, that way the oldest students now could progress in their skills next year.

“We’ve grown this program to more than 700 kids this summer,” said Director Tracey Peterson, of which West Liberty was a good portion. They want to build further upon that in years to come.

So why Legos?

“Every child has access to Legos,” answered Peterson. “They know how to utilize them, and how to build them in general. They are commonly available with motorized pieces.”

Take a walk down the toy aisle in many stores and you’ll see whole rows dedicated to Legos. In a way the popular children’s toy has become a universal language to teach engineering.

“For us, it allows us to implement that motor aspect into building,” he adds. “But also it’s effective, it’s inexpensive and it’s used in challenges.”

Lego robotics have become a popular way for students to compete across the country. West Liberty has had a few robotics clubs of its own the last several years.

In fact, programming has become a staple of education. The West Liberty Community School District has pushed the language of coding on its students.

The STEM Robotics Summer Camp was just another way to teach it in a fun environment. Be quite though, we don’t want the kids to figure out they spent a week in school during their summer break.
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