How to build young scientists

Professor uses robots to spur interest in science, technology

Work in Progress

January 13, 2008|By Joe Burris | Joe Burris,Sun reporter

The appliances on Anne Spence's kitchen countertop often have had to make way for a solar-powered satellite, a wind turbine, an oilrig and a hydrogen-powered car. But since the LEGO building brick devices she recently constructed are no longer than six inches, she didn't have to move the toaster.

Spence, an assistant mechanical engineering professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, is one of the catalysts behind the local division of an annual worldwide event involving LEGO robotics. The worldwide FIRST LEGO League allows youngsters ages 9 to 14 to build LEGO robots with electronic brains, motors and sensors for competition.

The devices on Spence's kitchen countertops will be manipulated by student-built robots at the FIRST LEGO League tournament on Jan. 26 at UMBC's Retriever Activities Center. Here, she discusses the competition:

FIRST THINGS FIRST --FIRST is an acronym for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. It's a nonprofit organization that helps inspire young people about science, engineering and technology. This year, 72 teams of middle-school kids from the state will be competing. There are competitions all over the world; they're all competing for a spot in the FIRST Robotics championship in Atlanta in April.

YOUNG ENGINEERS --The kids don't have to create the robotic brain themselves. They need to teach the brain what to do when it gets certain types of responses. Maybe they want it to turn around when its sensor touches a wall or back up when it senses a dark color, because there are also pathways and maps in the competition. Maybe they want it to either stay on the road or away from the road. They may want it to operate autonomously, so it doesn't always need input from them.

NO TOUCHING, PLEASE --The robots don't physically touch each other. They will attach a solar panel to the roof of a house, move a dam for hydroelectric power, place wind turbines to collect wind power and much more. The teams perform 12 challenges. Those groups who want to win will do all 12; some of the younger teams may only set out to accomplish up to three of the challenges.

TAKING YOUR WORK HOME --I've built stuff in my lab and on my kitchen countertop, just putting together different challenges for the robots. They're all LEGO devices, so they're not huge. The largest one is a solar-powered house, about 6-by-6 inches.

BUILDING SELF-ESTEEM --I'm hoping for kids to get excited about opportunities open to them in fields of science, technology and mathematics, especially kids who don't have a parent in the field. It's a chance to meet engineers and to really think about problem-solving.

ROBOTS FOR ALL AGES --I started as a volunteer at a FIRST Robotics competition about four years ago at the Naval Academy. It's a chance for high school kids to work together with engineers to build a robot that competes in a sports-related competition. I realized that it's important to get kids interested in robotics earlier than high school. That's when we at UMBC were made aware of the FIRST LEGO League competition, which is the farm school for the high-school competition. They were looking for a partner in Maryland, and UMBC became that partner.

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