The Free Press, Mankato, MN

November 17, 2012

Kids and their robots flock to MSU

By Robb Murray
Free Press Staff Writer

MANKATO — Alex Emery is a bright kid. But his dad says that, when it comes to what makes Alex tic, he’s kind of alone.

He’s into science and math and has a high IQ. So Alex, 7, gravitates toward older kids with similar interests.

But on Saturday at Minnesota State University, where the College of Science, Engineering and Technology was hosting its second annual MAVBOT Competition, Alex was among his peers.

In a conference room in the Centennial Student Union, Alex and other kids were engaged in engineering, computer programming, and good old-fashioned problem solving. Using Lego robots, their task was to properly program the robots to follow a black line on a twisty, turvy course. The robot that navigates the course the fastest is the winner. Simple as that.

“It’s great to see him get a chance to hang out with like-minded kids,” said Alex’s father, James Peeper.

Dozens of kids showed up Saturday to the competition. But calling it a competition may take away from what is really going on here. Sure, there is a contest to see which robots can navigate a pre-determined course the fastest. They even have trophies. But the real beauty of this event can be summed up in another word: exploration.

While the kids here were figuring out how to make their robots go faster or more read the course more accurately, they were learning how to solve problems using principles of engineering, and applying those solutions using computer programming.

Most had gotten a jump start the day before at the Southern Minnesota Children’s Museum, where local Lego robotics guru Deb Johnson of St. Peter has recently signed on to create a full Lego robotics program geared toward kids ages 6-12.

Johnson partnered with South Central College’s Mechatronics program, which allowed each kid to use one of its Lego robots for Saturday’s MAVBOT Competition.

She says working with robotics in a competition setting gives kids the opportunity to not just learn how to build a robot, but also how to work as part of a team with other kids, and the importance of achieving the best possible design, not just a design that happens to work. Troubleshooting and tweaking to make improvements is important to the process. It’s also a concept built into the MAVBOT Competition.

MSU electrical and computer engineering and technology professor Vince Winstead said that, when he designed the competition, he hoped that kids would talk to each other, even talk to other teams, to figure out solutions to their problems. He called it the “spirit of competition.”

“I’m really encouraged by the fact that there are so many kids here,”  he said.

Last year the competition was somewhat different.

Instead of a black line on the floor for robots to follow with light sensors, it was a wooden maze that robots navigated with bumpers. This year’s version, Winstead said, was slightly easier.

“It’s achievable,” he said. “They can feel like they can be successful, yet it’s challenging.”