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   from the issue of February 1, 2007

  UNL Extension program aims to spark interest in science, engineering

Robotic outreach


Students across Nebraska are learning about science, technology and engineering with their own personal tutors - robots.

ROBOT BUILD - Garrett Powell of Johnson County, Kan., works with a robot during the 4-H Technology Conference, hosted by...
ROBOT BUILD - Garrett Powell of Johnson County, Kan., works with a robot during the 4-H Technology Conference, hosted by UNL in July. A robotics curriculum led by UNL Extension allows students to build robots frm an 828-piece kit.

The new curriculum, a joint effort between UNL Extension and Carnegie Mellon University, was developed to teach students about the world of technology and spark interest in the field, said Brad Barker, a science and technology specialist in 4-H youth development at UNL.

"The main goal of the program is to create a positive experience with science and technology for students with hopes they will someday turn these interests into a career," Barker said.

Before its recent debut, the curriculum was tested in Gibbon, Neb., Barker said. Two groups of students, an experimental group that learned the curriculum material using the robots and a control group that did not, were given basic pre- and post-exams to test their knowledge on the subject matter. On average, students in the experimental group scored nine points higher on the post-exam than students in the control group.

"The hands-on experience really enhanced the learning process," said Cheryl Escritt, a teacher at Gibbon Elementary who taught the curriculum. "The step-by-step process helped them learn analytical thinking skills and problem solving."

Students begin by building robots from an 828-piece kit that includes a programmable microcomputer, tires, gears and motors. Once the robot is built, students program the robot using a microprocessor to accomplish simple tasks such as moving forward and backward, Barker said.

"The tasks get more challenging further into the curriculum," he said. "Eventually, we set up mazes and the students program their robots to maneuver through them using touch and light sensors."

Barker travels across Nebraska to encourage teachers and other group leaders to use the robotics curriculum. Because a lot of individuals are intimidated by new technology, hands-on demonstrations show them how much fun it can be, he said.

"Most people think technology owns the person - an individual can only do what technology allows it to do. We're using the robots to put technology in a new perspective and show people they can own technology," Barker said.

Escritt also said learning the technology is worthwhile because it is something people aren't exposed to every day.

So far, the curriculum is used in after-school and 4-H club programs for students ranging from third to eighth grade. The curriculum is outlined in two books, each of which takes eight to 10 weeks to complete, Barker said. One to three students typically are assigned to a single kit, which consists of a laptop computer and robot construction materials.

The program is unusual in Nebraska because curriculum materials are purchased by the state 4-H office and rented out at a minimal cost of $10 per student, Barker said.

"This is something rural Nebraska needs," Escritt said. "A lot of kids still think of robots as science fiction. This shows them it's real."



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Robotic outreach