Writer: Ms. Linda M. Breazeale, MSU Extension Service
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Samyra Harris, 7, did not know what she was getting into when her mother enrolled her in a 4-H Cloverbud robotics camp for three days at Mississippi State University.
“I thought we would just play with robots. I didn’t know we would build them, too,” Harris said.
Actually, the morning camp sessions are more about programming than building the robots, and other activities offered a taste of science, technology and engineering. To the 5- to 8-year-old participants, it is all about the fun.
“We are learning and having fun at the same time,” Harris said. She added that getting to know the other children has been part of the fun. Her partner in the robot programming activity, Julia Schloemer, 8, agreed.
“This has been a lot like school but not as strict,” Schloemer said. “We had fun playing with the vapor bubbles and wearing protective goggles and gloves.”
For the camp organizer and curriculum designer, Mariah Morgan, the sessions are about hooking children’s interest in science and technology.
“The robots are Dash robots from the Make Wonder company, so there is less building involved. Some kids still like to jazz them up a bit,” Morgan said.
Instructors guide the campers through the process of programming the robots to go forward, go backward, turn, flash lights and make sounds. They learned how to program “SOS” and their own voices into the robots. One task required them to program their robots to move through a small course and remove snowballs, represented by ping-pong balls.
Morgan, an assistant professor with the Extension Center for Technology Outreach, said the instructors want the students to learn that robots can be helpful as well as fun.
“It takes a lot of determination to program a robot successfully, so part of the lesson is to teach them not to give up,” she said. “The primary goal is to get them excited about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) as soon as possible -- while they are still young. Research suggests that the younger students are when they get hooked on STEM, the more likely they will pursue that interest in their future.”
Roberto Gallardo, who oversees the MSU Extension Intelligent Community Institute, said funding for the program came through the Governor’s ConnectMS nonprofit organization.
“It all goes back to developing a knowledgeable workforce in the future,” Gallardo said. “We are planting seeds that will grow into the 4-H robotics program, college programs and eventually careers.”
The 4-H Cloverbud program is designed for children ages 5 to 7. It is activity-driven and leader-directed.
Rae Oldham, an MSU 4-H specialist, said the lesson plans and activities with this robotics program engage the young children in the learning process.
“The material provides lessons on their level with plenty of fun to go along with them,” Oldham said. “It’s a good introduction to robots, and I would expect most of the participants to continue in 4-H programs related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics, such as robotics.”