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Elementary and middle schoolers accept the Robotic Challenge

Middle school and elementary students from a number of mid-Missouri schools attended the Robotics Challenge 2009 at Mizzou Engineering. Here a pair anxiously watches their robot’s performance as it tries to navigate a maze challenge. Photo by Elise Hasty

Learning was top priority for the 28 teams that participated in the Fourth Annual Robotics Challenge at the University of Missouri’s College of Engineering. Elementary and middle school teams from Columbia Public Schools and Kansas City schools, turned out on April 18 to test their robots’ skills and complete a challenge course.

Students were assigned to build a basic robot — using LEGO RCX or LEGO NXT kits — and to program their robots to navigate a challenge course. Robot operators were judged on maneuvering through each turn, detecting and following a black line, and identifying a wall to stop the robot. Students were given seven minutes and the opportunity to continuously run the course to improve scores.

The competition, sponsored by Engineering Fellows in K-12 Science Education, an NSF GK-12 Fellow Project headed by Satish Nair, an electrical and computer engineering professor, has grown continuously since its first year in 2006.

Ashwin Mohan, a doctoral candidate in electrical and computer engineering, and program manager of the NSF GK-12 project, said that many schools continue to participate even though they are not a part of the grant program the following year.

“We have developed a continuing relationship with some school clubs. They bring their own equipment and their own methods to the competition to take away a beneficial experience,” Mohan said.

The project seeks to improve team-building skills of engineering graduate students through events like Challenge and LEGO competition while also increasing the science and math education of middle school and elementary school students through hands-on engineering design projects.

John Ball, who is a graduate fellow of the project, has assisted with the competition for the past two years and said he enjoys working with the kids.

“It’s a really good thing for Columbia to integrate the University with the younger students who are interested in engineering,” Ball said.

After running the course, the students have the opportunity to meet with judges and discuss problems encountered, possibility of improvement and rationale for the decisions they made.

Mohan and Ball agree that the importance of the competition lies in the multi-faceted educational opportunities for the students.

“We really try to emphasize that this is an opportunity for kids from many schools to come together and see what other groups have done with their robotics clubs,” Ball said.

Mohan says the competition will continue to take place each year if interest remains.