Kids' club builds on the mechanics of teamwork

Robomaniacs changes academic outlook of pupils

June 22, 2003|By Sherry Stravino | Sherry Stravino,SUN STAFF

The Harford County Boys and Girls Club has hit upon an idea that is making a difference in the academic outlook of some members of the club.

The bright idea is Robomaniacs, a team of five 11- to 13-year-old members of the Boys and Girls Club who are assembling, programming and operating robots for design demonstrations. The team gave a demonstration of its skills for backers Thursday at Vitali's Restaurant in Edgewood.

This program identifies children who are typically underperforming academically, organizers said, but who gain strong motivation in math and science skills through participation in Robomaniacs. More than 200 pupils have participated in the team so far.

"Socially, teamwork is encouraged, where these five kids work together to form one robot for the task on the board, while academically, basic math skills to advanced physics skills are enforced. These kids are performing better than most of the high school kids I am working with, and four out of five of them have said they are performing with better grades than before," said Mark Hile, information technology director of the Boys and Girls Club and developer of the idea of Robomaniacs last year.

"The most interesting thing here - where the real story is - is that these ... young students who do not typically come from good resources, and who are C and D students, according to grades, become geniuses through the magic of this program," said Don Mathis, who runs the club's program. Hile found more success with Robomaniacs than the club anticipated, Mathis said.

On Thursday, 12-year-old twin brothers Deon and Leon Brooks presented their creation

"The amazing thing about this is that one of them had said he wanted to be a rap star, and the other claimed he wanted to be an NBA player ... but after being a part of Robomaniacs, they both now want their career to be in engineering," Mathis said.

Robomaniacs uses the Lego Mindstorms Robotics Invention System. A motorized obstacle course, programmed by the team's mentors, is designed for these middle-school participants to send a 160- to 200-piece robot through its paces.

Four team members recently took part in Anne Arundel County's third annual Robotics Festival at the Historical Electronics Museum in Linthicum, where "they demonstrated robots on our game board and participated in a surprise challenge contest in the afternoon," Mathis said.

The Smithsonian Institution and the University of Maryland provided small partnerships with the First Lego League for this year's Maryland State competition. Harford County Family Systems provided the original grant for computer equipment in all four Boys and Girls Club Robomaniacs laboratories in Harford County - Aberdeen, Bel Air, Edgewood and Havre de Grace.

The Harford County Partnership for Families annually holds a breakfast meeting for the club's supporters, together with the Partnership of the Local Management Board, which is the statutorily established human services coordinating agency for the program. The breakfast buffet at Vitali's was organized by Helen Harper, a server at Vitali's. "The morning went well, and I heard all good chatter about the children afterward; they were very polite, and let us know that they would be coming back," Harper said.

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