Think back to summer camp and activities like archery or canoeing may come to mind. Children huddled over laptop computers to program robots may not. But boys and girls doing just that is now a common sight at the W.E. Skelton 4-H Educational Conference Center at Smith Mountain Lake.
Thousands of children take advantage of the Skelton Conference Center’s camp programs each year. In 2008, hundreds of them participated in an expanded set of lessons in robotics, which required them to develop computer programming skills to get their creations to complete a series of tasks.
The Wirtz, Va., Skelton Conference Center added robotics to its slate of camp activities in 2006. In the program, children use LEGO Mindstorms NXT kits, a popular product that in recent years been embraced by many school systems as a way to get students excited about math and science through extracurricular activities.
The growth of such programs has been welcomed, in part, because there is a concern that U.S. students are not keeping up with those from other countries in such subjects, and not enough U.S. students are studying those subjects at the highest levels. In 2005, nearly 60 percent of engineering doctorates from U.S. schools went to people from other countries, according to the National Science Foundation.
Virginia Tech is working in several ways to attract more young Virginians to math and science. One way is the VT-STEM K-12 Outreach Initiative. Another is the expansion of science, engineering, and technology programs through Virginia 4-H, the youth development program of Virginia Cooperative Extension. Extension is a partnership of the commonwealth’s land-grant universities, Virginia Tech and Virginia State University.
In 2007, Dominion Virginia Power gave money to help many Extension units start robotics teams. The Skelton Conference Center’s robotics program has received a significant donation from former Virginia Tech President T. Marshall Hahn, Jr., who once chaired the university’s physics department and is director emeritus of the Skelton Conference Center’s board.
“I think it is an important program because it’s so helpful to introduce students to robotics and technology when they’re young, so that their interest can continue to grow and develop,” Hahn said.
His support allowed the Skelton Conference Center to create a robotics lab, which features laptop computers as well as the latest LEGO Mindstorms NXT kits.
“We went from serving 12 kids a week to serving 40 kids a week, and it also allowed us to begin offering robotics camps outside of the summer,” said Chris Smith, the associate director of the Skelton Conference Center who oversees its youth programs.
Participants in the robotics program are broken up into teams that assemble robots using specialized LEGO kits that include a large, programmable brick to which they add gears, wheels, and swing-arms. During the 2008 sessions the teams tried to get their robots to move a series of objects to particular locations on a table. Some of the objects could be pushed and others had to be picked up.
During one session, instructor Paul Lendway, a Roanoke County native who attends the College of William and Mary, acted as referee, scorekeeper, and advisor to the teams when they would occasionally become stumped by their challenge.
“I see the benefits of this class being twofold,” he said. “You have the cognitive, logical, math, almost scientific part, but you also have the non-cognitive aspect. Just as importantly as learning the technical ability is learning the ability to negotiate [with teammates].”
Edward Starkey of Roanoke, one of the participants, said he had not worked with robots before, but had wanted to for some time.
“I liked the programming, really,” he said. “You’ve got so many different things to choose from: forward, backward, how to move the [robotic] arm.”
Several participants said the experience made them want to join robotics teams in their hometowns, and one, Travis Knott of Burnt Chimney, said he hoped to get one of the robot kits for Christmas.
By phone, Karin Rooney of Roanoke County said her son Colin Rooney was introduced to robotics during camp at the Skelton Conference Center in 2007, participated in the program again in 2008, and is now on the robotics team at Cave Spring Middle School.
Colin hopes to be a counselor at the 2009 camp, where he may pass along his enthusiasm for computers. He said he was both surprised and pleased when he first discovered the program.
“It was different – not something you can usually get at camp,” he said.
Department of Engineering adjunct professors Bill Duggins (pictured center) and Susan Bright Duggins, who are husband and wife, have spread their passion for technology to young people across the state by persuading schools and 4-H programs to use LEGO Mindstorms kits to teach programming.
“We think of this as using robotics to inspire future engineering and scientists,” Bill Duggins said. “We want to create situations where students experience how much fun science and engineering can be.”
It’s fitting that Virginia Tech uses robots to inspire children, because the university is renowned for its work in robotics and artificial intelligence, as demonstrated by the accomplishments of the RoMeLa research unit and success in the DARPA Urban Challenge race of self-driving vehicles.
The W.E. Skelton 4-H Educational Conference Center at Smith Mountain Lake is one of six educational centers operated by the Virginia Cooperative Extension, a partnership of Virginia Tech and Virginia State University. Other facilities are in Sussex County, Abingdon, Front Royal, Appomattox, and Jamestown.
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