Robotics challenge students in summer school

Tyler Bergo and Race Latham work on a robot at Sandstone Middle School in Hermiston. Sarah Britain/The Hermiston Herald

Tyler Bergo, 10, stood between two tables in the Sandstone Middle School library talking to Sarah Miller, 12, while she sat at a nearby computer.

"OK, right here turn like this," he said turning to his left and facing the long side of the table. "Then go this way, then back up." As he spoke, he walked to the end of the table and back. "Then turn around," he said again, turning back toward Miller.

He was miming the actions he and Miller were trying to get a small robot to do they'd constructed with Lego NXT components. Miller turned to the computer and dragged and dropped icons into a program for the different directions before downloading them to the robot via a USB connection.

They gave it a try. After about three tries, the robot did what they wanted.

"Yes!" Miller cried, throwing her hands in the air. "Awesome."

Miller and Bergo were two of 12 Talented and Gifted students who took part in a robotics class earlier this month, one of many classes in Hermiston School's TAG Summer Academy.

Robotics teacher Jackie Whitesell said classes like this give the students a chance to move at their own pace.

"It's a chance for them to mingle and mix with other kids that think the way they do," she said.

Some students prefer the building portion of the course, Whitesell said, while others prefer the programming. For each version, there are different Legos the students can use.

One set uses motors, building blocks, pulleys and gears for a more rudimentary form of construction.

The other (NXT) uses more complex construction and students can set up programs on computers and download the programs onto small iPod-shaped computers strapped to constructed robots.

Whitesell said the younger kids preferred the constructor sets while older kids liked working with programming.

As class started, 12-year-old Alexis Pursel built a three-wheeled robot and was working on programming it to dance.

"I'm trying to program a boogie-bot," she said. "I'm trying to make it practically dance with different turns and actions and sounds. My goal is to get it back to the same spot it started from."

When she gave the boogie-bot it's first test drive, it had trouble backing up. The third back wheel got stuck and sent the boogie-bot hopping in a backward motion.

"Yeah," she said, "that wheel needs to be fixed. It shouldn't be rotating like that."

Pursel spent the rest of the class breaking down and rebuilding the wheel and working on her program.

In the class, Whitesell didn't make the students complete assignments or take tests. She did give them a non-mandatory daily challenge. On July 11 she challenged the kids to build a car that could run with a motor and could be dropped from knee-height.

Miller partnered with 15-year-old Reid Worstell and they added a motor to a wheelchair Miller had made. The only problem they encountered was strapping the motor to the chair, because all sides of the chair were smooth plastic.

"I like to build first and when you get stuck I like to try different ways to work out the problem," Miller said.

All the kids said they preferred this type of learning to what they did in school and even though the class took place in the library, it didn't feel like school work.

"It's more fun," Miller said. "You don't have to do certain things. You can do whatever project you want."

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