AMES, Iowa -- During the off-season, teams often take a break from their particular sport or activity. However, there’s no off-season for Iowa 4-H robotics teams. These future scientists and engineers always are preparing for their next event — whether the Bratney Companies 4-H Robotics Challenge at the Iowa State Fair or the 2011 FIRST LEGO League challenge this fall.
“The part that is exciting about the robotics challenges is that it is just an energizing, fun way to engage people with different interests,” said Jay Staker, director of Iowa State University Extension Science, Engineering and Technology (E-SET). “There are many roles for kids to fit into a team and develop their skills based on what they’re interested in and what their DNA wires them for.”
More than 240 Iowa teams participate in FIRST LEGO League (FLL), which unites youth around the globe in the world of robotics. More than 171,000 kids participate worldwide. The program engages kids, ages 9 through 14, in problem solving, teamwork and learning through competition. The exciting and energetic atmosphere of FLL quickly dispels stereotypes of the drab professors and bulky machinery sometimes associated with technology.
For some teams, robotics challenges are simply a way to learn more about science, engineering and technology. For others, it is a way to earn recognition in the world of robotics. For all, it is a way to hone problem solving skills, critical thinking, observation, inquiry-based learning and researching skills.
One team, the Cedar County 4-H Medical Marvels, made it from their regional FLL competition to the State of Iowa FLL Championship held at Iowa State in the College of Engineering in January.
Kelli Jauron, a Medical Marvels’ coach, recalls the day of the regional competition. “The competition is fun, energy-filled and nerve-racking because the kids have worked so diligently throughout the season and everyone hopes their hard work pays off.”
The students began their day in the “pit area,” where they waited to compete. The phases of competition began at 9 a.m. Teams had three runs with their robots at the playing field, presented an innovative idea to a panel of judges and participated in three interviews. Each team had a different schedule. The day ended at 5 p.m. with an awards ceremony and lots of cheering, Jauron said.
The Medical Marvels came up with an idea for an “Innovative Insulin Patch” that would provide supplemental insulin throughout the day so that diabetics could avoid spikes and lows in their blood sugar levels. The team presented a skit about the patch and showed how it would change lives.
The team’s hard work paid off. The Cedar County 4-H Medical Marvels were awarded with the “Presentation Award” trophy for their insulin patch and advanced to the state competition. There, they also received the Presentation Award. Awards are given to show that individuals can make a difference by researching problems, then contributing ideas and solutions to real-world issues.
“The Medical Marvels consisted of 10 children, ages 10 to 14,” Jauron said. “The kids worked well together despite their age difference. Our team was determined and was willing to put in the extra time to make it the best team possible.”
After the competitions, the Medical Marvels created a video about their experiences and posted it on YouTube. Check it out at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XK9S37pqLig.
Teams participate in FLL by registering for the yearly challenge, which includes a theme and set of missions. The challenge is released each September. Teams register and begin building their robots, programming their missions and researching topics related to the theme. Registration opened in May for the fall 2011 challenge, “Food Factor.”
More Iowa 4-H clubs have been getting involved in robotics in the last three years.
“In the last three years, we’ve really started encouraging more clubs to develop around the robotics topic and to participate in events that allow them to showcase their skills and knowledge,” said Holly Bignall, with E-SET.
Clubs don’t have to compete. They can simply learn through robotics curriculum. Gear 21 is an online curriculum from University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension 4-H Youth Development. National 4-H offers a three-step curriculum in textbook formats for leaders and students. The curriculum helps students build their understanding of science concepts, apply processes of scientific inquiry, explore related careers and use tools of technology to enhance learning.
Community organizations and businesses see the value of 4-H robotics and are joining ISU Extension to encourage involvement. The Bratney Companies 4-H Robotics Challenge, held at the Iowa State Fair, received a five-year sponsorship from Bratney in 2010. The application deadline for the 2011 challenge was June 1; selected teams will be announced July 1.
Robotics clubs are started when kids are recruited through county fair booths, robot workshops and informational meetings. Once started, clubs receive funding through community foundations, local businesses and Rockwell Collins grants.
“The sort of bigger picture is that robots are fun and exciting, so it’s a positive way with positive experiences to expose lots of kids to science and technology and hopefully get them to think about the possibility of careers,” Bignall said.