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Building foundations for future engineers

Mizzou Engineering doctoral student Craig Weilbaecher demonstrates what LEGO robots can do for Andrew Davenport, 7, center, and his brother Adam, 5, during the Christian Chapel Academy science fair.

Youngsters at the Christian Chapel Academy science fair in Columbia who watched an advanced computer technique turn their antics into big-screen entertainment didn’t know the name for the process that mixes two scenes together to form a single image.

But that didn’t matter. They crowded around a Mizzou Engineering display demonstrating the “green screen” technique that removes the color green from an image to reveal another behind it, making faces into the camera and laughing at their on-screen poses.

“I’ve heard about it but I’ve never really used it,” said Sarah White, an 8-year-old academy student. “I think it’s cool the way you can change so many things just by using the computer and the green cloth.”

Several Mizzou Engineering groups sought to interest young science fair participants in their disciplines during the event, held March 12 for kindergarten through eighth-grade students of the academy at 3300 S. Providence Road. Engineering students working with information technology, LEGO robotics, homopolar motors, MU’s hydrogen car team and the college’s Society of Women Engineers (SWE) chapter offered hands-on introductions to the field through their displays.

Christian Chapel Academy organizers asked the Mizzou engineering students to participate to provide role models for the youngsters and draw their attention to science, academy Principal Vince Winn said.

Grant Slemp, an 18-year-old industrial engineering sophomore on the hydrogen car team, said team members are eager to drum up support among young children for engineering and science as well as for alternative energy. The team’s display, featuring a fuel cell from its last car that converts hydrogen gas into water and energy, aimed to encourage young students to pursue engineering down the road as well as make the goal of finding alternative energy sources more tangible, he said.

“It’s just good to spread the word on this thing, however we can,” Slemp said.

Students at the SWE table built structures out of gumdrops and toothpicks, learning how to create strong structures by making use of such natural forces as tension and compression. Another Mizzou Engineering exhibit demonstrated the engineering principles behind homopolar motors, which may be made from a battery, two magnets and a copper wire.

The robotic LEGOS, which a group of Mizzou graduate students use in mid-Missouri classrooms and at campus camps to teach youngsters design and programming principles, were “big hits” with her children, said Robin Davenport, who attended the fair with her sons Andrew and Adam, 7 and 5 years old, respectively.

Biological engineering doctoral student Craig Weilbaecher, who helped found the LEGO camps, said hope of generating that type of enthusiasm draws LEGO robotic instructors to numerous community activities.

“It’s fun for the kids, fun for me,” Weilbaecher said. “Whenever we have an outlet where we can get the kids excited about technology, we’re there.”



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