NDSU summer camp introduces kids to engineering
Published July 17, 2013
The rules were simple. Don’t let your robot fall on the floor. Take turns. Have fun. And ask questions.
For a group of Fargo-Moorhead-area third, fourth and fifth graders, consider it a mission accomplished. They took part in Robot Rumble, a four-day summer camp held each year at NDSU. It’s one of many programs designed to spur youth interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Conducted under the guidance of NDSU College of Engineering faculty and staff, Robot Rumble campers learned about different engineering disciplines. They discovered the engineering process of research, planning, and creating and testing a prototype.
“We start out by asking the students what they think engineers do,” said Nancy Rossland, assistant to the dean for college relations. “Most think all engineers do is drive trains.”
The students quickly learned otherwise. New terminology, techniques and problem-solving skills were introduced each day in a classroom in the Civil and Industrial Engineering building.
After four days, they put their newfound knowledge to the test. Using a Lego Mindstorms kit, the students constructed a robot that included light, sound and touch sensors, rotating arms, axles and wheels. The robots were about the size of a desktop telephone and their focal point was a programmable computer, which functions as the “brain.”
Each team used software on a laptop computer to program the robot’s actions across a tabletop obstacle course. The programming was then transferred to the robot.
Hunter Gangnes of Argusville, N.D., was in the midst of explaining his robot’s features when an announcement was made. “Twenty minutes until ‘go time,’” said Rossland, who helped oversee the competition.
The intensity in the room reached a mad scramble. Teammates Ethan Suriano and Jake Fox, both of Fargo, N.D., huddled over a computer, conducting a last-minute analysis. Ethan typed some instructions into his computer, which he then hooked up to the robot’s brain.
“After this, it will turn and go,” Suriano said to Fox.
The rest of the teams were conducting final tweaks to their design and programming. This final mission awaited the 16 students all week.
With parents, relatives and siblings watching over their creations, the two-person teams pressed the run button and the robots took off. Placing a ball on a pedestal became capping an oil well. Knocking a ball off an opponent’s pedestal became uncapping a volcano. Maneuvering a handful of nuts turned into sliding moon rocks.
Each team hoped to complete as many tasks as possible during each of three rounds. Every successful step added to their point total.
Round one ended with only one team’s robot tumbling off the table to the ground. No worries. A few minor adjustments and its spindly arms were back trying to create a volcanic eruption.
The rest of the teams similarly made adjustments, telling the robots to move straighter or turn sooner.
“Just so you know, we’re winning,” Fox said to Suriano. Indeed, they were. After each round they extended their lead and won the competition with 45 points.
Once the rumble ceased, the room quieted down. The robots were disassembled and students took turns approaching the front of the room to receive awards. Their introduction to the world of engineering could be deemed a success.
“They learned that things sometimes don’t always work as they should,” Rossland said. “But they also learned they can overcome those challenges through teamwork and asking questions.”