This spring twenty-one fifth and sixth grade students at Welchester Elementary were introduced to the science of robots through an after school program. The first ever Welchester Robotics Club was founded by Mike Stark and funded by a grant from the IBM Corporation. Mr. Stark was assisted by two other parents, Greg Oakleif and Matt Makley.
The students built and programmed robots using Mindstorms NXT, an educational kit that was released by LEGO in 2006. The goal of this year's club was to get kids interested in engineering and technology while they had fun constructing robots. The club was hands-on and each student had the chance to build and program their group's automaton. The students used the easy to understand NXT software to write the program and then they downloaded the code to the bot. As Calvin Jordan noted, "My favorite thing was to program the robot and watch it do what I told it to do."
Each group named their robot and the names ranged from mythological to silly: Zeus, Nitro, Diger (pronounced Digger) and Billy Bob Joe Jr. Over the course of several meetings, the children learned to program the robots to complete increasingly difficult tasks. Each session the students tested their robots with races and other competitions leading up to the Final Challenge. As the final session neared, the students' energy and enthusiasm grew. Some even attended early morning sessions before school to perfect the code for their robots.
In the last meeting, the bots had to successfully execute three distinct tasks to earn points. The jobs included sweeping candy "toxic waste" into a trash bin, pressing the trash compactor button, and following a trail out of the pen. Each group had four attempts to complete the challenge and their top two scores were added together to compute their final tally. All four teams were very competitive and the challenge resulted in a tie for first place between Zeus and Diger. Zeus was the only robot to achieve a perfect score of ten that afternoon. The winners each received a piece of the candy "toxic waste."
Mr. Stark has big plans for next year's Robotics Club. He said, "There will probably be two clubs, an advanced one for kids that participated this year, and one for beginners. Hopefully, there will also be room for fourth graders."