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Motorized robots are loose on the Palouse!

It’s Friday morning, and the WSU Cleveland building hallway is a-buzz with the whirring gears of mini-robots on wheels. The gray, mobile devices — about the shape of an oversize softball cut in half with a couple of angled faceplates and sporting two metal wire sensors with tips curved into rings — crash into walls (on purpose), back up, spin around and head in a new direction. The young manufacturers, science campers in the 10-to-12-year-old bracket, watch with rapt attention or study the programming booklet, planning their robot’s next series of moves.

In room 121 of Cleveland, worktables are littered with kit boxes, tools, parts, and a handful of robots waiting to be finished or have their turn at “troubleshooting.” Camp counselors Mark Goddard (actually related to rocket pioneer Robert H. Goddard) and Terri Varnado are up to their arms in electronics as they gently, patiently help the kids who are slow to the finish or fix those errors that are too tough for the young minds to figure out.

Over in a corner, some of the kids who have finished, or are waiting to get their robots out of the Goddard-Varnado maintenance shop, are watching the movie premier of robot great “Robby” from the 1956 SF classic, “Forbidden Planet.”

The fifth and sixth graders arrived Monday morning at the Cleveland entrance, clearly excited about the prospects of the coming week. Counselors escorted the young scientists on a visit to Schweitzer industries, which funded the event, and then to a greatly anticipated lunch at the Rotunda. (Campers consider eating at the Rotunda — “a great buffet” — with college students as a treat and a special part of the robotics program!)

But then it was time to get down to work. And don’t think that because the robots came from kits that the assembly was easy! Campers inventoried their kits and learned how to solder circuit boards. Soldering was a new experience for these kids and most of them kept a scorecard count of their minor burns.

A couple dozen or more capacitors, resistors and other components, including an ELEKIT Fuzzy 101 microprocessor, had to be laid out in the boards in the correct orientation and soldered precisely. (Dads, don’t even think of trying this early Christmas morning!) The kids then mounted the electronics into a molded plastic motorized chassis on wheels and connected control faceplate, two sets of batteries, housing cover and sensor wires.

Then they had to learn how to program the different motion functions on a keypad with more buttons than an administrative secretary would see on an executive telephone. Campers could decide for themselves on a precise sequence of movements or they could play “roulette” or “dice.” In roulette, the robot spins in a circle a random number of times and then stops. The game is to guess the number. For dice, the student inserts a small pen in the underside of the chassis, then activates the robot. The device spins in a pattern that writes a random, one-digit number.

Each day, parents patiently waited for their children to leave the classroom. But not all the kids were in a hurry to leave at day’s end. Some who hung back wanted to keep working or play with display robots. Linda Schoepflin, director of the summer session and coordinator of Cougar Quest summer camps, reports that one mother said her son talked nonstop about the program from the time she picked him up at 3 p.m. until she dropped him off the next morning.

Melissa Creely was the first camper to finish a robot (not because she’s fast, she said, but because she worked steadily and didn’t pause to chat with friends), but others soon followed, and the classroom and halls were buzzing with the sound of kid-built robots!

When asked if they had a fun time, these friendly, charming and intelligent youngsters sort of just stared and then grinned. Apparently it was a “duh”mb question!

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