LEGO Robotics camp a resounding success

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Participant displaying their LEGO Mindstorms Robotic device at the 2017 Science Outreach Athabasca Robotics Camp. [Photo Credit: Dr. Lisa Carter, July 2017]

Science Outreach Athabasca’s most popular summer program powered up for its fifth season last month.

Twenty-two kids and youth from around the Athabasca region took part in the annual summer LEGO Robotics camp, held over two days at the town’s Regional Multiplex theatre.

Athabasca University Faculty of Science and Technology Dean, Dr. Lisa Carter (also the Chair of Science Outreach Athabasca) along with Professor Emeritus Dr. Robert Holmberg, spearheaded the volunteer-led robotics program a few years back.

A new breed of scientist

In a society where evolving tech toys consistently trend across all age groups, Carter felt the program was a must-have. More importantly, she says the program which involves “kids enjoying two days of creating robots that perform different activities” aims to pique participants’ interest in science.

[Photo Credit: Dr. Lisa Carter, July 2017]

“It’s the “classroom outdoors,” says Carter.

“Participants have the opportunity to interact with our own faculty as well as the volunteers — and they have that type of connection where they talk about science in broader terms rather than just sitting there and learning concepts from a textbook. To me, that’s really satisfying.”

Carter said this year’s camp “was a resounding success” with an average number of youth participating alongside a dozen community volunteers including FST faculty from SCIS and in one case their spouse.

“I’d like to acknowledge them as they were the smart people who also helped to guide the kids to code and build the robots,” said Carter, adoringly referring to the volunteers as the ‘human power’ behind the program and, without whom, she says, the camp would not be possible.

“Thank you to them, specifically, as well as to the team that fed and watered them!” Carter enthused, giving standout praise to Athabasca River Basin Outreach Coordinator, Linda Lindballe, whom she says is “the glue that keeps Science Outreach together.”

In a thank-you note to the volunteers, Lindballe acknowledged that many of them seemed to have had “as much fun, if not more than the kids!”

“The responses and feedback from the participants and parents were overwhelmingly positive — and I thank [the volunteers] for all that. It really takes a village to run this camp and we couldn’t do it without all of [them],” she added.

They have that type of connection where they talk about science in broader terms rather than just sitting there and learning concepts from a textbook. To me, that’s really satisfying.~ Dr. Lisa Carter, Chair, Science Outreach Athabasca

Camela Dierker, a math and science teacher with the Aspen View School Division, was one of the volunteer robotics camp instructors. She said a program like this one makes sense given the advent of drones and robots in pop culture, coupled with a renewed fervour for all-things LEGO.

She said the goal of the first LEGO Robotics camp in 2011 was for the program to continually advance in successive years — even bringing in aerial robots and drone technology (the latter was a hit feature in two recent camps for teens, led by AU Assistant Professor (and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) expert) Dr. Frédérique Pivot.

Beep boop booping along

Of the robotics camp’s popularity, Carter said the youth participants are drawn to working together and describes the team spirit as infectious.

“People are really excited to engage in this. Over two or three days they build robots and they have the opportunity to solve problems by showing how robots do certain types of tasks,” she said.

Materials for the camps come in kits containing the popular LEGO NXT MINDSTORMS series of robot parts. They are provided by an Ontario educational company called Spectrum Nasco, and include downloadable software and sensor technology.

Carter says that while the camp is a blast, there are a limited number of kits ordered as they come with a hefty price tag. When the camp wraps for a summer, volunteers have to disassemble the robots and re-package the parts for use at the next year’s event.

“These camps are always over-subscribed,” said Carter.

“We wished to run them more regularly but we have a cap [on attendance] because we only have a certain amount of material. Because of [that], we couldn’t have more kids attend. In fact, there was a waiting list for kids wanting to apply.”

Dierker said this year’s program was comprised mostly of first-time campers (rather than returning applicants) and that of the 22 kids participating, 18 were males that outnumbered female attendees by 82 per cent. Female attendance comprised a paltry figure of just four girls — something Dierker says she hopes will increase next summer.

It’s a concept Pivot has felt compelled to change, as she told AU’s OPEN magazine in its 2015 cover story:

[Pivot] wants more women to break down barriers by moving into the sciences, and thinks it’s time for more to explore the horizons opened by unmanned aerial vehicles. In her role on the Unmanned Systems Canada Board of Directors, she’s addressing under-representation in the sector by encouraging women to get involved in UAVs, and casting the spotlight on the achievements of women already doing pioneering work.” [excerpted from OPEN magazine , 2015, ‘Research Takes Flight,’ p. 22]

This year’s Science Outreach Robotics Camp was divided into seven groups, with one kit per group. Boys were divvied into six groups of three, while the girls formed their own group. The camp’s two-day duration was determined to allow adequate time for the robot build through to ‘go-live’.

Virtually every hour counts, explained Dierker, pointing to the fact that much time alone was spent on robot sensor assembly and testing.

The robots resemble cars and come with a host of sensors – infrared sensors to sense light and dark; motion sensors to detect ‘on-coming traffic;’ and sound sensors with the ability to discern between ‘stop’ and ‘go’ or ‘turn’ commands.

“It’s a bonus to get this thing to do what you want it to do!” said Dierker.

Carter remarked that this year’s participants were ahead of the computing curve. “The kids were so smart — and especially in comparison to previous years — many of them were quick to program their robots,” she said.

Dierker echoed the observation. “We were already in the testing stage and had everything completed within the first day. It took pretty much the whole day to get all four sensors attached and tested independently, and then to do a little playing to see if we could get all of them working at the same time.”

[Photo Credit: Dr. Lisa Carter, 2017]

The camp wrapped with a final ‘showcase showdown’ — a ‘friendly,’ ‘informal,’ and ‘feel-good competition, according to Carter, to see who could get their robot to work first, and attended by participants’ family members.

Dierker was particularly keen on the ‘go-live’ component. “The goal, at the end of the day, was to make this thing work as fast as [they could], and to come up with a new [robot] vehicle and to program it,” she said, noting she allotted time for each camper to have his or her hand at robotic programming. — “I wanted to make sure that they all had a chance to try it.”

That attention to detail should bode well for her this fall. Dierker, a math and science teacher at Edwin Parr Composite high school in Athabasca, will be adding a LEGO robotics option to her class schedule, teaching grade eight and nine students over the upcoming school semesters.

The kids were so smart — and especially in comparison to previous years — many of them were quick to program their robots. ~ Dr. Lisa Carter

She admits that prior to the summer camp she didn’t have much experience with LEGO robotics. Essentially, the Science Outreach program was her very own pilot project to get herself familiarized with MINDSTORMS technology.

“It helped me to learn,” she said, adding that she still has her homework cut out for her as the course she’s teaching uses the CB3 version of MINDSTORMS. In fact, she says containing her excitement over the work has been a challenge.

Recently, she stood by watching as her 10-year-old nephew built his own LEGO ‘bot, and says she will definitely be looking to him to guide her through her own prep work.

“I need to build it and work and play with it and get him to help me to learn,” she said.

“Robots definitely have an interesting pull towards me. I can’t wait to open it up and get it built!”

One of her Aspen View School Division colleagues will also be teaching a grade 10 and 12 robotics course. Dierker says she looks forward to comparing class notes.

And later this month, the colleagues will be heading to Calgary to attend a hands-on beginner’s ‘Teaching with LEGO Robotics’ training course for teachers. Using either MINDSTORMS EV3 & NXT robot kits and programming software, participants will learn the basics behind programming and troubleshooting to enable them to teach robotics to students.

Science Outreach’s Dr. Holmberg says he can’t stress the importance of robotic technology enough.

“Down the road, we’re going to have more and more ‘robotic-type things’ being used,” he says.

“Instead of a police officer risking [his or her life] to find out what’s happening in a dangerous situation, you’ll send in a robot. Or, we might be doing firefighting with robots, in the future.

“If kids start learning about robotics now, maybe they’ll invent something or end up working with robots down the road –  or, at best, feel more comfortable around them, since they’ve been doing it since they were kids.”

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