WALL-E world: Summer camp teaches robotics

Special to the Daily Herald/Katelyn Dean - Students learn the basics of robotics by attending a summer camp at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton. Area fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders have been learning to build and program robots from professor Dr. Bill Tanner and computer science students who have studied robotics at UMHB.

By Katelyn Dean

Special to the Daily Herald

BELTON – About two dozen students from across Central Texas will be putting their mechanized LEGO creations to the test today as Robot Camp wraps up at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor.

Area fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders have been learning to build and program robots under the guidance of computer science professor Dr. Bill Tanner and computer science students who have studied robotics at UMHB. The annual two-session camp culminates today with a series of robot races.

"We designed the robot camp to address several of the main elements found in our robotics course," Tanner said.

The program also uses robotics courseware from LEGO Education and the colorful model construction kits popular with children.

The final class challenges the robots in three areas – ability to maneuver, speed and strength – by racing through a maze, seeing how fast each can move a bundle of cans and measuring which robot can push the most water bottles. Senior computer science major Christopher Shaw, 28, said the process of building and programming the machines, using ROBOLAB software, challenges the students in their problem-solving skills – something he thinks they will use often in the future.

"You have to formulate steps to make your robot do things," he said.

Shaw said he believed the students picked up on the jargon and concepts very quickly.

"Kids are a lot smarter than we give them credit for," he said.

Elizabeth Smith, of Gatesville, placed her 11-year-old son, Jake, in the program after he built a robot for his school science fair. She said robotics is good for the younger students because of how it's taught.

"It's a hands-on science, something children this age respond to well," Smith said, adding that Jake has decided he wants to be a roboticist.

Several area schools have programs for students using various LEGO kits and competitions. Tanner said he hopes UMHB will be able to mentor those programs or sponsor some of the contests.

"The important thing is that we realize that there are a lot of opportunities for students to be able to investigate things, especially scientific things, and the way they work," Tanner said.

Joyce Addison, of Austin, placed her grandson, 10-year-old Patrick Addison, in the UMHB course to show him another potential field of study. She emphasized the importance of a good education and an awareness of various professions.

"I'm just trying to get him exposed to different things," she said.

Addison brought Patrick to the UMHB campus last summer to visit her sister, social work associate professor Shirley Walker. He became interested in robotics during that time and made it a goal to come back this year despite the time she spends driving on Interstate 35.

With only a few LEGO Education robotics systems, sessions were limited to 25 students leaving some would-be campers turned away. Tanner said he hopes to use proceeds from this summer's camps to buy more kits for next year.

"I hope the students understand that exercising their curiosity is the major business of science," Tanner said. "Robotics provides a special case for our young people to create a device they can use to solve problems."

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