4-H: Young 4'H-ers take a turn as robot engineers

What do robotics and the environment have to do with 4-H and youth? Well, on Oct. 10, 4-H celebrated the 50th annual National Youth Science Day. Young people across the country were challenged to design and build a robot that would be able to clean up a toxic spill.

The purpose of 4-H's National Youth Science Day is to create an interest in science, engineering and technology in the hope that some of these youths will consider pursuing a career in one of these fields.

This year, participants were given supplies and instruction in building a miniature robot. Titled the 4-H Eco-Bot Challenge, the youths used a toothbrush, batteries and a small motor, to build a small robot which could clean an imaginary toxic spill. The toxic spill was really birdseed provided to simulate a spill.

In Howard County, the Maryland 4-H Extension Office led three sessions at three different locations on Oct. 10 and 12. Altogether, 82 young people participated in the event locally.

Walking into the session being held at the Columbia Youth Center, I encountered 12 youths hard at work building their robots.

Once construction was completed, they were given a place mat and birdseed to simulate the spill. Kids were also given straws, small plastic cups and paper that could be used to build boundaries to contain the spill.

According to the contest rules, their robots had two minutes to get as much birdseed cleared from their mat as possible.

Many of the robots had difficulty staying upright. Some kids found it to be effective to let the robot move on its side as opposed to the bristles being on the bottom of the robot.

After two minutes, the youths discussed the results and were given the chance to make some refinements. One young engineer attached a straw to the top of his robot, creating wings for balance. The idea worked and the robot stayed upright with the bristles moving along the bottom of the machine.

At the end of the session, I interviewed three participants about their experience. Eleven-year-old Ayana Moses said, "I learned that when people think of robots, they think of big things that are hard to make, but some robots are easy to make."

Kori Griffon, also 11, said, "I learned that the bristles affect how the robot moves. I learned that something as small as this can actually clean something."

Zhion Perkins, age 9, noted, "I learned how to use motors and how electricity goes through the battery. It made the toothbrush spin. So I learned how to make an electric toothbrush."

It was obvious to me that these participants had benefited from their experience as robot engineers. If you'd like to learn more about the 4-H National Youth Science Day you can go to their website at http://www.4-H.org/NYSD. I wonder what next year's challenge will be?

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