Teens explore teamwork through robotics


August 16, 2002|By Lesa Jansen | Lesa Jansen,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A MOUNT AIRY couple with a love of working with children, and a large defense contractor with a desire to become involved in public service have teamed to provide area youngsters with a learning opportunity.

The Explorers is a youth organization for high school students. The group falls under the umbrella of Boy Scouts of America, but also is open to girls.

Four years ago, defense giant Lockheed Martin called on its employees to become involved in public service projects. The Gaithersburg company decided to sponsor an Explorers post and needed adult advisers.

Mount Airy resident Beth May, a computer engineer at Lockheed Martin, stepped forward.

"I just love working with kids," May said. "I thought this would be an exciting program, but we needed a project."

May's husband, Tom, also a computer engineer, entered the picture.

"He was dabbling in robotics at the time, and we invited him to talk to the kids about it," May said.

Tom May provided small robotics kits and let the kids go to work.

"We knew it was a great success when [Tom] was bummed because he said, `The kids' algorithms are so much better than anything I ever put together,'" his wife said.

That was the beginning of a project that took Explorers Post 1010 to the regionals of a national robotics competition.

The KISS Institute for Practical Robotics is a nonprofit group based in Norman, Okla. Each year, the institute, with the NASA Robotics Education Program, Lego Mindstorms, the U.S. Department of Education and others, sponsors a national competition called Botball.

Teams of contestants in grades seven through 12 compete by building mini-autonomous robots with software programs. The robots compete in a game. The institute's goal is to provide "a hands-on program in robotics to stimulate interest in math and science while learning advanced technology," its Web site said.

This year, Explorers Post 1010 finished fourth in the regional competition at George Mason University, which was held in the spring. Sixty Washington-area teams participated.

"We found that aside from it being a lot of fun for the kids, competing in this promoted teamwork, focusing on a goal and strategizing," Tom May said. "The kids are given a problem to solve, such as designing a robot and its software. The adults do not design it, just provide guidance."

The group meets every other week in the evening at Lockheed Martin's headquarters. Aside from robotics, the Explorers have sponsored a model rocketry workshop and have worked on other projects and activities usually related to engineering or computer software.

"We like to have them work on things that stimulate their interest," Tom May said. "Something hands-on."

The group has grown. It started with 20 kids and now has 50.

Beth May, who has taken time off from the group to raise her family, hopes to rejoin as an adviser this year.

"What I'd really like to be able to do is to encourage more girls to join," she said. "That bothers me because I know there are girls out there who would love this."

Explorers Post 1010 will hold an open house in the fall for potential members. The open house will be held from noon to 4 p.m. Oct. 5 at Lockheed Martin, 700 N. Frederick Road, Gaithersburg.

Information: Bob Eckman, lead adviser, Lockheed Martin, 301-240-7625, or for information about forming a BotBall team: www.Botball.org

Camp meeting

West Falls Christian Community Church in Mount Airy will hold an "old time camp meeting" with the theme "unity in our community."

The meeting will be held from noon to 7 p.m. Aug. 24 at the Mount Airy Volunteer Fire Company's Carnival Grounds on Route 27.

Local choirs will perform and the event will feature speakers, activities for children and food.

Part of the proceeds will be donated to the Ronald J. Vauk Memorial Scholarship Fund. Vauk, a Mount Airy resident, was killed in the terrorist attack at the Pentagon on Sept. 11.

Information: 301-829-8007.

Yard waste pickup

Yard waste pickup is scheduled for tomorrow for Mount Airy residents.

Grass clippings, hedge and garden clippings, tree prunings and leaves should be placed curbside in biodegradable paper bags by 7 a.m. the day of the pickup.

Information: 301-829-1424.

Lesa Jansen's Southwest neighborhood column appears each Friday in the Carroll County edition of The Sun.

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