DALLAS – Mark Janecka, 15, of Georgetown 4-H, is doing something people wouldn’t typically associate with a 4-H project – he is building and programming his own robot.
“I’ve been involved in model rocketry through 4-H for a while now, but I wanted to try robotics because I’m interested in that too,” he said. “I wanted to know more about both of them for a possible career in aerospace, robotics or some sort of engineering.”
Janecka is using a Lego Mindstorms kit as part of a distance-learning project made available through Texas 4-H, which is administered by the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, an agency of the Texas A&M University System.
“I’ve always enjoyed building and programming things and plan to continue working with robots and getting more experience with them,” he said. “I’m even on the new (state) 4-H Robotics Advisory Committee.”
Introducing young people to robotics teaches them skills related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics, as well as important life skills, said Derrick Bruton, AgriLife Extension program specialist for 4-H and youth development in Dallas.
“Through Texas 4-H, AgriLife Extension and other entities of the Texas A&M University System are involved in efforts to interest youth and adults in robotics,” Bruton said.
Bruton said the 4-H Science, Engineering and Technology program of Texas 4-H, of which robotics is an integral portion, is part of a national initiative to bring science back into 4-H project work.
“Nationally our science, engineering and technology programs reach more than 5 million youth with hands-on learning experiences, including robotics,” said Dr. Chris Boleman, Texas 4-H program director and member of the board of trustees of the National 4-H Council.
“4-H robotics programs are available through AgriLife Extension in many counties throughout the state, particularly in urban areas and as shorter-term special interest programs. The 4-H robotics curriculum uses a variety of media and methods to engage youth in scientific inquiry, engineering design, developing new skills and knowledge, and considering careers in science and technology.”
Robotics-related information for 4-H is posted at http://texas4-h.tamu.edu/robotics.
Bruton said one robotics opportunity recently made available to Texas 4-H members is a free online course created Dr. Tanja Karp, associate professor in Texas Tech University’s electrical and computer engineering department, Lubbock.
“This course includes weekly videos and worksheets and is for any Texas 4-H adult or youth interested in learning the basics of Lego Mindstorm EV3 robots,” Bruton said.”4-H’ers form teams with a lead adult leader or coach and sign in remotely from their location.”
Karp said 53 people are signed up for the current online robotics course.
“In addition, Derrick Bruton and I will be conducting professional development training for adults interested in bringing robotics to Texas youth,” she said.
Christian Dieterich, 14, of Double Oak, a member of the Argyle 4-H club, is one of several 4-H’ers currently taking online robotics course.
“I’ve finished all seven of the course challenges, but the final two were the most difficult,” Dieterich said. “I’ve been involved in robotics through 4-H for five years now, building and experimenting with my own robots, so I already knew a lot of the information in the course. However, I have found it extremely useful as I’m now teaching other 4-H’ers about robotics and plan to use a lot of the course information for that.”
Karp said she started the robotics course in 2006, partly in response to lower enrollment in the engineering department.
“I thought of the course as a way to get young people interested in science and to begin a pipeline for potential engineers and scientists,” she said. “We started at the elementary school level and then expanded to middle school. Recently, we received funding from the Halliburton Foundation, which made it possible to bring additional middle school students into the program.”
Karp said in addition to science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, skills, the course teaches important life skills that can be applied toward other disciplines and careers.
“We emphasize problem-solving, teamwork and critical thinking, and those can be applied to almost anything in the academic or business world,” she said.
Another new robotics-based opportunity for 4-H youth is the Zero Robotics Middle School Program.
“Thanks to Dr. Greg Chamitoff, a professor in the aerospace engineering department, and Johannes Strobel, director of educational outreach programs with the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station and the Dwight Look College of Engineering at Texas A&M, this program is now in Texas for the first time,” Bruton said.
The program is a five-week STEM curriculum that introduces students to robotics, computer programming and space engineering, plus gives hands-on programming experience.
Chamitoff worked with the robots aboard the space station during his time as a NASA astronaut. When he returned from space, he worked with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and NASA to create the Zero Robotics competition to inspire and engage students in robotics and space exploration. He joined the faculty at Texas A&M last year and is now director of the Aerospace Technology Research and Operations Center.
“NASA has called Zero Robotics one of its most successful STEM outreach programs of all time, and it has already inspired thousands of students across the country,” Chamitoff said. “We are very excited about getting students from Texas involved in learning about space exploration and robotics. The program connects students with prominent scientists and college student mentors, and encourages them to pursue careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.”
The Zero Robotics program for middle school students runs June through July, with the finals in mid-August, Bruton explained. In Texas, the program is directed by Dr. David Hyland, a Texas A&M professor of aerospace engineering with a joint appointment in physics and astronomy, and Dr. Joseph Morgan with the Texas A&M’s engineering technology and industrial distribution department.
Zero Robotics is a programming competition in which the robots are called SPHERES, which stands for Synchronized Position Hold, Engage and Reorient Experimental satellites, placed inside the International Space Station. Teams first compete online where they program the SPHERES to solve a challenge motivated by a problem of interest to NASA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and MIT.
Student participants compete through a web-based game through which they program their strategies into the SPHERES to control their speed, rotation and direction of travel to overcome obstacles and complete mission objectives.
After several virtual competitions, finalists are selected to compete in a live championship competition, which is conducted by an astronaut aboard the International Space Station via a live broadcast as the crew members experience microgravity. Participants and adult leaders and coaches gather to watch the championship broadcast from a designated room at NASA.
This year, Texas teams included students from Wichita County 4-H in Wichita Falls, Aldine Middle School in Houston, Keating Middle School and Four Points Middle School in Austin, the Middle School Teen Program of Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio and home schools.
“There were seven kids ages 10-13 on the Wichita team, and that team took third place in the statewide competition,” said Jean Hall, a team coach involved in 4-H robotics for three years. “The competition was a virtual one and was mainly about writing code. Zero Robotics took them to a much higher level; it really challenged them.”
Hall said because the Wichita County team placed so highly in the virtual competition, they were allowed to provide input to improve the first place code.
“As a result, the Texas team got second place nationwide among the competitors,” she said. “This was especially impressive since this was the first year Texas had participated. The kids really enjoyed going to NASA, meeting some astronauts and seeing their code get used.”
Bruton said vision and direction for these and future Texas 4-H robotics projects will come from the newly formed state-level Texas 4-H Robotics Advisory Committee, which includes teen 4-Hmembers, volunteer adult leaders, AgriLife Extension agents and robotics industry representatives.
He said with the new advisory board in place and the success and expansion of already established 4-H programs, robotics will continue to grow and develop youth interest in the scientific use of technology and in the pursuit of science-related academics and careers.