By STEVEN NALLEY
The threshold of a new level of robotics waited for Hallie Westbrook inside a Lego box.
Westbrook, 14, is starting her first year as a senior in the Mississippi 4-H Robotics program. Juniors in the program, ages 8-13, work with the Lego Mindstorms NXT kit, which features a central computer brick and pieces that, while tailored for robotics, are familiar for Lego aficionados. The Tetrix kit for seniors, ages 14-18, carries over little besides the central computer, Westbrook said.
“There were a whole bunch of screws everywhere and small parts,” Westbrook said. “You actually have to wire up all your motors. Our robot weighs about five pounds; it’s very heavy. It was a little scary opening up the box ... (but) I like the challenge of it. I like the computers and having to solve problems.”
Mississippi State University’s Bost Extension Center hosted the Mississippi 4-H 2013 Robotics Club kickoff event Saturday, bringing together 100 4-H members and their adult volunteer leaders from 30 counties across the state.
Mariah Smith, Mississippi 4-H robotics project organizer, said the kickoff is more than an orientation for newcomers to the clubs and those graduating from the junior level to the senior level. The kickoff is also where club leaders from each county retrieve five months’ worth of club curriculum materials, including robot components and programming.
“This is a very small percentage of the kids who actually participate,” Smith said. “We only take three kids per county for kickoff, but we do have some new counties that are here as well.”
Smith said 11 of the 30 counties with robotics clubs are new this year, including Hinds, Jefferson Davis, Forrest, Lowndes, Prentiss, Tunica and Noxubee counties. Another new addition this year is Carnegie Mellon’s Computer Science Student Network Badge System, which she said is designed to give students certification in the Labview programming language by the time they graduate from high school.
“The Labview programming language ... is used in many industries and companies,” Smith said. “I think it’s something that could be really beneficial to the kids.”
Smith said this year marks Mississippi 4-H’s fourth year of convening robotics clubs and its third annual kickoff for robotics. She said 4-H’s primary focus remains rooted in agriculture, but agriculture and robotics are not mutually exclusive.
“Agriculture is intensely huge in Mississippi, and we remain committed to that ... but a lot of your agriculture in Mississippi is also very technology-driven,” Smith said. “The extension service has apps for farmers to use. (Some companies are) actually making tractors that are controlled (remotely) from a command center. There’s a recent statistic that showed most jobs these kids will do don’t even exist yet. We’re just preparing them for a future where they can do anything, to keep Mississippi on a forward track.
The club’s activities are not limited to robotics; one of the kickoff’s activities asked teams of students to construct a light bulb from a glass jar, batteries, wires, and other household parts. Monica Morel, leader of the “Gears and Gadgets” 4-H robotics club in Hancock County, said the clubs give students a broad background in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), and one key difference between 4-H and other robotics programs is the lack of expense for students.
“The focus is less on winning and more (on) doing the best you can,” Morel said. “It allows (participation for) kids who might not have time ... who might not have access otherwise.”
That doesn’t mean the clubs don’t compete; Morel said there is a said there is a statewide 4-H Club Congress competition for seniors in May and Project Achievement Days competitions for juniors in each of four districts within the state. 4-H also hosts summer robotics camps for not only juniors and seniors, but also the 4-H Cloverbud students between ages 5-7. The goals of the competitions remain secret for now, she said, but she can reveal the theme: outer space.
“The robots they’re building this year are all similar to robots NASA actually uses, like Mars rovers,” Smith said. “The older group is going to be doing something called ‘Operation Reset,’ which is a virtual world. It’s an imaginary planet, and they’re going to program their robot to complete various tasks on this planet. The juniors are going to Mars, metaphorically speaking.”