Rocking robotics

Lea Schorzmann, 11, and her friend Katie Rushton, 12, both of Fort Dodge, had a simple initial goal for the robot they were putting together during a Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics session on the Iowa Central Community College East Campus Friday.

“We’re going to try to have it maneuver around this cup,” Rushton said as she picked one up.

The pair were in the early stages of getting the LEGO programmable robot put together. Step-by-step instructions were available on each computer in the lab in which they worked.

Getting it together was the easy part; making it work on the other hand was not so easy.

“We have to program it,” Rushton said.

Of the two, Rushton had some previous experience with STEM program robot building.

“It went pretty well,” she said.

The key is to be specific in giving the machine directions, she said, “Otherwise it gets confused easily.”

The students’ robots perform simple tasks, but if the sky was limit they’d have the robots do much more.

“It would be my slave and do all my chores,” Schorzmann said.

Rushton thought about it.

“Feed the dog and mow the lawn,” she said.

Matt Ross, 14, of Moorland, and Ben Gardner, 13, of Fort Dodge, have some experience with the machines and were able to help the younger students.

Their previous robot had been programmed to push a ball. This time, it was going to be a lot bigger and better.

“We’re going to make a little crane for it and pick it up,” Ross said.

They said the assembly part is easy; the challenge is working the bugs out of the programming.

Phil Heckman, youth field specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach in Webster City helped plan the event for the 18 students from Humboldt, Hamilton, Wright and Webster counties.

He said the event helps teach leadership skills, team work, citizenship and communication. It also teaches goal-setting by deciding what they want the machine to do, then programming it to do so.

The students are never at a loss for ideas, he said.

“They will fill the space you give them,” Heckman said.

Ultimately, he hopes that the students can apply what they learn to the real world and see how robotics are actually a part of their everyday lives.

“We have a need to get something done,” Heckman said. “A robot can fill that need.”

He referred to GPS-controlled combines and robotic vacuum cleaners.

“We’re living in a world where they have real world applications,” he said.

Of course, there might be some things that – no matter how clever – the robots won’t be taking over.

Ross said he might like one that would do his homework.

Gardner countered: “What if you enjoy your homework?”

“Do you?” Ross asked.

Gardner answered quietly: “Maybe.”