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Program that uses LEGO Robotics kits helps make math and science fun for children

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.

   

Hundreds of children are learning computer programming skills and having fun during robotics programs at the W.E. Skelton 4-H Educational Conference Center at Smith Mountain Lake. Hundreds of children are learning computer programming skills and having fun during robotics programs at the Skelton Conference Center at Smith Mountain Lake.

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.

   

Tom Copenhaver, a rising junior from Winchester who is majoring in Geography, taught a multimedia course to campers in the summer of 2008 at the W.E. Skelton 4-H Educational Conference Center at Smith Mountain Lake. Tom Copenhaver, a rising junior from Winchester, Va., who is majoring in geography, taught a multimedia course to campers in the summer of 2008 at the Skelton Conference Center at Smith Mountain Lake.

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.”

   

Participants watch their LEGO robot perform at the W.E. Skelton 4-H Educational Conference Center at Smith Mountain Lake. Participants watch their LEGO robot perform at the W.E. Skelton 4-H Educational Conference Center at Smith Mountain Lake.

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.

  • For more information on this topic, contact Albert Raboteau at (540) 231-2844.

Education through enjoyment

    Department of Engineering adjuncts Bill Duggins (center) and Susan Bright Duggins, husband and wife, have spread their passion for technology to young people by persuading schools and 4-H programs to use LEGO Mindstorms kits to teach programming.

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.”

Multimedia

  • Watch the 4-H motto put into action at the W.E. Skelton 4-H Educational Conference Center, a facility dedicated to serving the youth of 19 Virginia counties.
  • The Skelton Conference Center’s namesake, who passed away in August 2008, was a former dean of Extension and a dedicated volunteer on the university’s behalf. 
    Watch an interview in which he discusses the benefits 4-H programs bring to young people, or learn more about William E. Skelton’s legacy at the university.

Renowned robots

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.

Across the commonwealth

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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