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Robot Garage: Kids build robots, explore engineering ingenuity

Posted: July 13, 2014 - 12:01am
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Riley Traxler, 10, right, operates the robot controller with Levi Traxler, 9, and Kara Strong, 8, during Robot Garage, the first of four science Fridays at the Valley Public Library.  Marlena Sloss | Juneau Empire
Marlena Sloss | Juneau Empire
Riley Traxler, 10, right, operates the robot controller with Levi Traxler, 9, and Kara Strong, 8, during Robot Garage, the first of four science Fridays at the Valley Public Library.

The Mendenhall Valley Library was overrun with robots on Friday, as local kids participated in the summer program’s first Science Friday event — Robot Garage. Kids gathered and grouped up to build real, functioning terrestrial robots to learn about robotics, engineering and good old-fashioned teamwork.

Not only did the kids get to construct and interact with robots, they also had the opportunity to talk to robot experts from the Museum of Flight in Seattle via a video conference.

“The event is a combination of a video conference with the Museum of Flight, using the OWL (online learning) system to connect with them to talk about the history of robots, where things are going in the field and the kind of things they can be used for such as in space, in the home and just everyday use,” said Beth Weigel, programming and events coordinator for Juneau Public Libraries.

Beginning with a brief history of robots and a glimpse of what they hold for the future, the kids were then grouped off and given the tools they needed to construct their own robots.

The Museum of Flight sent ten boxes to the library, each filled with the necessary tools needed to build a robot.

“Each individual kit has wires and motors along with dozens of connector pieces, wheels and effectors, etc.,” said Sarah Knights, outreach coordinator for The Museum of Flight. “They are more remarkable by the lack of instructions. The students receive no instruction on building the robots, they must figure out their own challenge. I’ve done hundreds of Robot Garage programs and have never seen the exact same robot created twice.”

Robot Garage is part of The Museum of Flight’s outreach and distance learning programs. Since the inception of the programs, the museum has worked with students in 10 states and two Canadian provinces. This is the seventh program hosted in Alaska.

“Distance learning is a great way to reach student’s who aren’t able to access engaging, informal education programs locally,” Knights said. “We mail the robot kits to the schools, library, or community center in advance so the day of the program the students will be able to engineer their own robots.”

Robot Garage also marks the first of four Science Fridays, a series of events hosted by Juneau Public Libraries to engage youth in multiple aspects of science, including robots, ocean chemistry and fueling and containing fires.

“This is all incorporated with the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) program,” said Weigel. “Often times, kids in this age group lose interest in science. This is to keep them interested, keep them curious and if they want, to go on to have a career in science.”

According to the STEM website, “STEM is not just learning a set of facts or memorizing a process: it is an understanding of how individual objects or systems operate. It is also a way of thinking, approaching problems and sustaining a sense of wonder.”

With the overall goal in mind, Juneau libraries set up their science-themed Friday’s to follow that initiative.

“The goal is to make a robot, to meet the challenge, to meet new people with the same interest and with that, to continue to be intrigued by science and want to continue to study in the area,” Weigel said.

That mission is aligned with the program goal of the museum.

“Our hope is that students will walk away from the program thinking that robots are awesome,” Knights said. “By the end of the program, every student will have built a rover using only their own creativity and ingenuity; it is one step in helping them understand that engineering isn’t an intimidating field, but something they actually do every day.”

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