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NMSU's Los Alamos Extension program introduces children to robotics, geocaching, rocketry

LOS ALAMOS, N.M. - What child doesn't like to build with LEGOs? Add the ability to program the creation to move, and you have the challenge of robotics.

Two boys, one in a Superman shirt the other in a red shirt, working on a robot.
Jackson Blair, left, and Tristan MacDonald build a LEGO MINDSTORM robot during the 4-H TechKnowKids program presented by New Mexico State University's Los Alamos County Cooperative Extension Service. The program introduces children ages 6 to 9 to robotics, rocketry and geocaching. (NMSU photo by Jane Moorman)

Welcome to one aspect of Los Alamos County Cooperative Extension Service's 4-H TechKnowKids program.

In addition to robotics, the participants learn about the Global Positioning System, known as GPS, by participating in geocaching activities; they play educational computer games designed by New Mexico State University's Learning Games Lab; and they build and launch rockets.

"One of the major objectives of the program is to introduce kids to technology in general," said Carlos Valdez, NMSU's Los Alamos County Extension agent. "Beyond that we are introducing concepts in math, science and technology to children ages 6 to 9."

NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service provides experts who share useful information for youth on a range of topics in addition to providing valuable training and information for agricultural producers, small business owners, consumers and others in rural communities in 33 counties throughout the state.

National 4-H is working to reverse the trend of American students not taking enough of an interest in engineering and technology by offering robotics and other science-based projects to its members.

Bernalillo and Santa Fe counties have traditional 4-H clubs that do robotics and rocketry projects, but no county in New Mexico has a special interest program like Los Alamos' that combines the two project areas with GPS geocaching.

"These kids have never done robotics, rocketry or used GPS, so three of the four activities are brand new concepts to them," Valdez said.

"We are targeting the Clover Bud age group, which are kids in first, second and third grade, because Los Alamos has an established robotics program for older children. We see this as an introduction into the topics and a feeder program."

The youth meet once a week for five months in the special interest program. Valdez said this format of program is more popular in Los Alamos County than the traditional 4-H clubs where officers are selected and meetings held monthly.

"Los Alamos County isn't a typical county," Valdez said. "There is no agricultural production in this county. As a result of being a completely urban audience, many of the traditional projects that are still emphasized in the state, such as raising livestock, are not attractive to the children in this county."

However, the TechKnowKids program is very popular in Los Alamos.

"We have offered the program for three years. We have about 15 kids participating in each five-month session," Valdez said. "It has been very popular with the boys. However, we've only had two girls stay with the program for the entire five months. Boys at this age can be overpowering with their enthusiasm and the girls don't get to participate fully. So we are seriously considering having an all-girls group in the fall and then an all-boys group in the spring."

Each week the children participate in activities such as a geocaching hunt for plastic eggs, or launching rockets, or doing educational computer games from the NMSU Learning Games Lab creations of Math Snacks, Ratio Rumble, Science Pirates and Pearl Diver.

But the main activity of the week is working on their LEGO robots, which are the cornerstone of the program.

"We have combined robotic curriculums from National 4-H and Carnegie Mellon Robotic Institute, along with LEGO MINDSTORM's system of programming," Valdez said. "Carnegie Mellon is a self-guided curriculum where the children can sit at the computer and work at their own pace to learn the different behaviors and motions within robotics and how to program those behaviors and motions."

LEGO MINDSTORM robotics kits come with the computer brain for the robot, called the brick, along with LEGO pieces to add wheels, and a variety of sensors that tell the robot to stop when it is touched, or go when it senses a sound such as a clap, or read different colors so it can follow a path.

"We begin with very simple tasks where we teach them how to program the robot to move forward or backward," Valdez said. "Then we add turning, which involves concepts such as what is a right angle, how many degrees are in a right angle, and, even, how to use a protractor to determine the angle of the turn."

As the five months progress, the children's skills grow from simple robotics and building their robot from directions, to doing a self-guided robot where they decide on the design of the robot with the only criteria being the type of sensors that will be used.

"Even at this age, these kids pick up the programming quickly," Valdez said. "LEGO MINDSTORM uses visual blocks for each task. The kids just drag them into their program script and set the parameters."
Once the brick is programmed, the kids place their robot on the floor, turn it on and see if it follows the commands they have established. It's either back to the drawing board, or a celebration of success as they have experienced the ultimate thrill of conquering the challenge.

To learn more about the program, watch a video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hf10QN-oHOc