Girls get hooked on robotics in engineering camp

by Kim Robins - Posted on Jul 23, 2010 - 06:41 PM

An all-girl group of fourth and fifth graders spent last week building robots and programming them for some stiff competition in the 2010 Engineering Camp held at Botetourt Elementary School.

Using Lego Mindstorm kits, the 20 girls worked in teams of two to build their base robots and program their behaviors by downloading information into the "brain" attached to the robot that controls its movements. The girls are challenged to have the robot maneuver a maze, sweep balls from a playing field, hit a ping pong ball, win a speed race and come out still standing in a battle with another robot.

For each challenge, the robot’s structure is modified to meet the task. Over the four-day camp, the girls try varying modifications to both the machine and their programs to get the best performance from their robot in each of the challenge tasks. They move repeatedly from their practice areas in the computer lab back to their computers to download and try new approaches to the challenge.

They also do not hesitate to pull the entire robot apart and experiment with a new design. "They’ll actually just pull it all apart, fearlessly, and try a different way," said teacher Christine Newcomb, who led the session with Susan Henk. Both are Botetourt faculty members and have instructed the girls-only summer engineering camp for three years.

The girls tweak their robots continually through practice competitions in preparation for the culminating contests on Friday. On that final camp day, they will compete in all five challenges in front of an audience of parents and other relatives.

"You want to get third place," camper Abby Green said of her and partner Emily Wiehrs’ strategy. Abby said some girls were concentrating on doing well in just one challenge, while she and Emily are working on having a good showing in each robot skill area. Abby said wrestling is their best event, so their focus is on the other tasks.

"It’s been fun, very fun," Abby said of her four days at camp. "We learned about technology and how you can download stuff from the computer to the robot." Emily agreed, "You build cool robots and learn from your mistakes."

The camp is an introduction to technology and its uses that the educators hope will inspire some of the girls to further pursue the field. Henk said some have already signed up for the technology class that is available when they move on to Peasley Middle School. The camp, she said, "gives them the confidence to participate, and compete, in technology."