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Kids study robotics 101

By By James Crawford
News Editor
Fifth grader Garrett Walley watched anxiously as the Lego block slid down the shoot to the bottom of the platform. "I'm not sure it will work just right," Walley said as he watched the laptop screen.
The motorized Lego crane jerked as it moved to the right, then in ragged movements lowered to pick up the block, rise up again and swing itself to the left, where it would complete its task of relocating the block as Walley looked up with a smile.
"It shows me that I need to take all the math and science that I can to get to college," Walley said when asked what the project had taught him. Fellow teammate, fourth grader Brian Conway, added simply as he stared at the laptop screen, "it's cool. It's been a great project."
The Escambia County High School hosted a two-day robotics workshop on Thursday and Friday, with Auburn Physics Professor Marlin Simon on hand to teach Atmore area middle and high school students the art of building robots and the joy of learning science.
The workshop is a spin-off of a grant from the Howard-Hughes Medical Institute, administered by Simon, that took 50 kids from 8th grade and exposed them to segments in robotics, biology, chemistry and physics during a set period.
Once the project was over, Simon took the laptops, the robotics program and his spare time and decided to use the remaining money he had to bring the program to other area schools.
"I'm looking to start a program in a junior college somewhere so I'll sit down and write the grants and try to get that going," Simon said.
ECHS seniors had the first crack at robot building on Thursday. From 8:30 a.m. until 2:30 p.m., they labored to understand the program that would control the motorized blocks and the building plans.
"They [seniors] did all this yesterday, then they get to play teacher today," Simon said.
"If they don't take all the math and science they can take, they aren't ready when they get to college. So this is a way to get them interested. It makes them understand that you can do science and have a lot of fun."
Students from Escambia County Middle School, Huxford and A.C. Moore had their chance to participate on Friday. With the assistance of their senior class guides, they gathered blocks, wires, an interface box and a Macintosh laptop computer and in pairs built a robot that could lift the blocks from a ramp and relocated them inches away by means of a motorized crane, all controlled by software, which the students participated in modifying to fit their needs.
"It's something interesting, something new that our students have never had the opportunity to participate in before," Huxford principal Betty Warren said.
As a reward for paying attention and trying their best, the students all received a Lego racing car toy.
"They've been here since 8:30," Simon said after noticing the time was nearly 2:30 p.m. "Try studying history for that long."