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NMSU Extension introduces junk drawer robotics to 4-H students

ALBUQUERQUE - Have you ever tried to build an air-powered robotic arm that can pick an item up and place it somewhere else? Now imagine doing this task with re-purposed items found in a typical junk drawer or garage.


Boy, girl and man working on object made from wood
Cooper Linderfelt and Alysianna Sandoval work on their air-powered robotic arm with the help of Mark Howard during a junk drawer robotics session at New Mexico State University?s Bernalillo County Cooperative Extension Service office. Howard, a mechanical engineer at Sandia National Laboratories, led the program that follows a national 4-H curriculum. (NMSU photo by Jane Moorman)

New Mexico State University ?s Cooperative Extension Service teaches robotics camps for 4-H students across the state. In Albuquerque there was a new challenge ? turning piles of everyday stuff into robots.

Over a five-month period, students used their ingenuity during the 4-H Junk Drawer Robotics program hosted by New Mexico State University?s Bernalillo County Cooperative Extension Service.

?The goal of this program is to make science, engineering and technology engaging and meaningful in the lives of young people,? said Brittany Grube, Bernalillo County 4-H agent, of the 4-H Robotics curriculum developed by the University of Nebraska.

?The activities do this by encouraging them to use the processes and approaches of science, the planning and conceptual design of engineering, and the application of technology skills and abilities they possess.?

Mark Howard, a mechanical engineer at Sandia National Laboratories who volunteers with the 4-H program, as well as the FIRST Lego League and FIRST Tech Challenge robotic competition, led the youth through six meetings where various aspects of engineering and physics were introduced.

The program began with the youth learning to think like a scientist, communicate like an engineer and build like a technician.

?The kids learned the steps we engineers use daily,? Howard said. ?As we do, they came up with an idea, drew it on paper, created it, tested it and returned to the drawing board to improve the design, or start over with a new idea.?

The youth, ages 7 to 9, worked in groups of three to create a marshmallow catapult, a robotic arm that bent at an elbow, and a gripper from re-purposed items, such as paint stirrers, egg cartons, plastic tubes, wooden sticks and various other items.

Along the way, they learned several laws of physics ? like the Law of the Lever ? and aspects of mechanical engineering.

?They learned about balance and how the fulcrum point helps balance items of different weights, or how you use that point to catapult a lighter item,? Howard said.

They learned the terminology of the movement of the robotic arms: vertical, radial and rotational ? and wrist: yaw, bend and swivel.

When it came to moving their robotic arm, the youth learned about pneumatics, the use of air to perform mechanical tasks by either wind power or pumping air through tubing and cylinders.

?They created several designs of grippers, after working with chopsticks to pick up a ping-pong ball,? Howard said. ?They also learned how clothes pins and pliers pinch to grip. And how reversing air flow can cause a vacuum that will pick up the ping-pong ball.?

At the final meeting, the culminating activity combined all that they learned during the previous three build projects.

?It?s just plain fun to take a pile of unrelated items, put them together with duct tape, glue and wooden dowels, added a little air-power from one?s own lungs or a hand pump, and have the robotic ?arm? grip a ball, bend its ?elbow? and then let go of the ball.? Howard said.

?This was the first time we?ve offered this enrichment class,? Grube said of the class that met every two weeks, March through July. ?The kids really enjoyed it, so next summer we plan on offering a repeat of the first level, and the opportunity for this year?s youth to do the next level of the curriculum, ?Robots on the Move.?