Learning skills through robotics

STANHOPE – If you happened into the community center in Stanhope this week, you just might have been run down by a robotic car built, designed, and operated by a youngster participating in a robotics camp that was sponsored by ISU Extension.

Phil Heckman, regional youth specialist with extension for Wright, Hamilton, Humboldt, and Webster counties, was in charge of the day camp, which ran daily for a week. “First they visualize their plan, then they design the car, and then they build it,” he explained. “We’re teaching them about STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and about robotics.”

Heckman said the camps have been popular in other counties this summer, too. The robotics day camp was open to all youngsters, whether or not they are in 4H. There were eight who attended the Stanhope sessions, most of them just a little too young to join quite yet. “We’ve had 50-some kids already, and we’ll be pushing about 100 kids through camps this summer,” Heckman noted of participation in all the counties.

“But this wouldn’t be possible if Hamilton County Extension had not pitched in to help fund it,” he added. “Cheryll Entriken (county extension staff) has worked very hard getting all the STEM programs up and going in Hamilton County. It’s important to have the technology on hand to teach kids what they want to learn, and she’s had the support of the extension council.”

According to Heckman, Entriken has also been key in a robotics club that has met twice monthly at the extension office the past year. This year there will possibly a First Lego League team.

Seeing the young boys and girls very adeptly working on their laptop programs while others tweak the design of their cars before they race them across the floor seems like a very long way from the days when 4-H meant projects that focused on livestock or learning how to bake biscuits or how to sew a gathered skirt.

But to Heckman nothing has really changed. “This is the same thing we were doing 100 years ago,” he insists, with a sweep of his hand. “We’re teaching kids job skills. Then it was agriculture and domestic skills. Now it’s STEM skills. But it’s the same thing. It’s still 4-H; it just looks a little different. “

Heckman also pointed out that the day camp started out with the basics just like any 4H program, as he went over safety, fairness, sharing, communicating, and fun with the eight participants.

He said that state and national 4H is headed in the direction of STEM programming, as people use STEM to engineer solutions in the real world. And that includes males as well as females, he notes. “I’ve been very impressed with the young girls coming through the camp. They know their stuff and aren’t afraid to use it,” Heckman observed. “As we go along, those gender stereotypes are getting less and less. It just takes time.”

For now, these young campers don’t seem too worried about the stereotypes they may be dashing, or that what they’re doing isn’t exactly a traditional 4H project. As Eddie Wirth, age 9, of Ellsworth sees it, “I like building the robots and then I get to do the techy part, too.”

Why does Alley Odland, age 9, of Webster City like participating in the camp? “I like building the robots and then working with them to see how they go,” she answers.