By Kim Farrell Staff writer

Ryan Backer and Kariena Armstrong both of Boonville work with William Wilson a teacher at Strough as they try to get their robot car to do what they want it to do. (Sentinel photo by John Clifford)

Rachel Paugh, 10 of Oneida watches her robot car work at Griffiss Institute (Sentinel photo by John Clifford)

Gears were churning at Griffiss Institute, as 22 young engineers put their brain power and robot creations to work at LEGO Mindstorm Robotics Camp.

The students, age 10-14, spent a week learning to build and program robots using LEGO building blocks and battery powered mechanisms. They then used computer programing to put them to work in situations robotic devices might encounter in outer space.

A joint project of the Griffiss Institute and Mohawk Valley Community College, the "robot camp" is intended to show young participants that deductive reasoning, problem solving and logical thinking can be fun too.

The popularity of the program, now in its second year, is testament that many budding young engineers and computer scientists are getting the message.

"We had to limit the classes to 22 kids," said Lisa Philipson, coordinator for the College for Kids and Teens at MVCC. "Last year’s program was so successful that we had people calling to ask about this year before our brochures were even out." Philipson said that the program will definitely be offered again next summer.

A $29 camp fee was charged to cover administration through MVCC, but all the expert instruction and the use of the equipment at the camp was free.

Jeffrey DeMatteis, an engineer at the Air Force Research Laboratory, led the camps. He, along with several of his colleagues from the lab, spent two weeks working with the robot camp students.

The camps were held July 12-15 and 26-29 at the institute and were funded through a grant from the Office of the Secretary of Defense as part of the National Defense Education Act’s STEM Initiative.

The STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) Initiative is a governmental effort to increase interest in these subjects in young students. From the looks on the faces of the campers there last week, the LEGO Mindstorm Robotics Camp seems to be meeting that goal.

A computer room and lecture hall bustled with activity as the students raced back and forth trying their robots, seeing how and why they succeeded or failed, and then returning to the computer to reprogram them.

Students were also introduced to various types of sensors, learned to apply measurement and geometry to calculate robot navigation, and gained experience in the experimental process and documentation.

"It’s really pretty neat," DeMatteis said. "A lot of these kids have no experience at all and they are learning to program. They really do pick it up fast, and, at this age, they really stick with it. They keep working on it and working on it until they get it."

Students hailed from Rome, Remsen, Holland Patent and Sauquoit. The young robot builders were divided into teams of two.

DeMatteis said that each of the robot kits costs $260 and one of the first things the campers ask is "can we take these home." The answer is no. However, once having the opportunity to use this equipment, many of the campers were asking their parents if they could have their own, DeMatteis said.

After they choose a function for their robot to do, the students designed a machine that could perform that function. Next step was to program their creation so it could complete the task. Using a kid friendly computer format that utilizes icons, or symbols, the young programmers were actually creating their own individual programs to download into their robots. From there, it was trial and error to determine what worked and what needed to be changed.

"We try to get them to think like engineers," DeMatteis said. "We tell them to change one thing at a time and document their changes." DeMatteis said that the students need to learn that keeping track of what has been tried and failed is crucial to developing a successful outcome.

Several different work scenarios were on display, from trying to retrieve a wayward moon buggy to carrying hazardous objects and depositing them in a safe place. As each robot attempted their task, the teams of young developers either cheered with enthusiasm or groaned with disappointment at the results. But whatever the emotion the outcomes evoked, they were short lived as the students ran quickly back to their computers to tweak their program to get better results.

The kids at this summer camp may not have been hiking or swimming, but they certainly got a lot of exercise for their brains. And judging from the smiles on their faces and the spring in their steps, they had a blast doing it.

DeMatteis said that’s what LEGO Mindstorm Robotics Camp is all about. "We are trying to tell kids that you can have fun with math and science," he said.