Rolling out the robots

POCAHONTAS – Joe Hopkins, 11, watched as his little Lego buggy rolled down the competition table, turned slightly toward the ball it was supposed to move – and then began spinning endlessly in circles. He had a bit more programming to do.

Hopkins, a Pocahontas 4-H Club member, was a contestant in the Western Iowa Robot Festival Wednesday, run by Iowa State University Extension and Outreach 4-H.

The six-hour event challenged 12 teams of students in fourth to 10th grade from nine communities to build and program a robot to complete tasks on a large competition mat. The robots were to move a toy polar bear from one point to a designated area, push “levee” blocks to the right point, lift and move a target, or lift a lever to move a house, for example.

Trent Elbert, 13, from a second Pocahontas team, showed how the robots are programmed. He didn’t have to learn a programming language; instead, he dragged different “blocks” into place on his computer. Each block told the robot to move, lift and arm, or monitor a sensor.

“There are different moving blocks. Or you can program it to start when you clap your hands, but it was too loud in here. You can make it follow a line, and put a row of tape down,” Elbert said.

To complete the the day’s tasks, the students had to tell their robots exactly how far to go in any direction – working it out by trial and error.

In fact, they had to program exactly how many rotations of the wheels their robots made, said Kaia Cullenward, 13, of Woodbury.

“For each rotation, it goes about 16 inches,” said her teammate Daphne Zimmerman, 13.

The programming is simple, but not at all easy.

“It gets down to one rotation, or 1.5, and then you have to adjust it,” Zimmerman said. “It gets frustrating when you have to take it down .1 each time because it’s going too far.”

Cullenward said, “It’s hard to work for so many hours on this because sometimes you get frustrated.”

The challenges came from First Lego League competition, said Scott Fosseen, one of the judges for the day, but in that contest the participants had days to prepare. This challenge forced students to come up with their design and programming in one day.

Fosseen works in computer technology for the Prairie Lakes AEA. He was involved with the 4-H robot day last year as well. Fosseen said he was impressed by the variety of designs kids came up with – some robots had movable arms, while others were shaped more like a bulldozer to push pieces around.

He also appreciated the diversity in the students.

“In the industry they always say it’s hard to find girls who are interested in technology, but if you look around the room here boys and girls are represented about equally,” Fosseen said.

Zimmerman said her group, which also included Hannah King, 11, saw a robot competition at the State Fair and wanted to do something like that.

“We just thought it would be cool to learn about it,” King said. “We’re interested in technology.”

Their studies in school prepare them for this kind of thing.

“We’re in advanced math,” Zimmerman said.

“It takes a lot of science knowledge,” said King.

Cullenward added, “You have to be logical.”

Students could have as many trial runs as they wanted. When they were ready, they notified one of three judges and then had two chances to complete the task.

As the 2 p.m. deadline neared, the line of students waiting to use the tables grew longer and longer as teams rushed to try out a challenge, watched their robots bump into the walls, and then rushed back to tweak the program.

The teams also completed a “junk drawer challenge” to launch a marshmallow using plastic spoons, rubber bands, tape and other pieces.

“We’re part of the Iowa STEM initiative – science technology engineering and math,” said Carol Ehlers, 4-H youth field specialist.

ISU Extension has been involved in teaching science like this for over a decade, she said, but now with the Governor’s focus on STEM, they are doing it in a deeper, more extensive way.

“Technically, if kids are studying animal science, it’s a science,” she said. “4-H has always been a part of that science endeavor, but now we’re adding the new sciences and the new technology to our 4-H program.”

At the end of the day, the Woodbury 1 team took first place in the junk drawer challenge, the Sac County Early Achievers won the robot competition, and the Pocahontas 2 group won overall.