Creative Builders Gather at Indoor Robot Parade

Janie (L) and Katie Young work on assembling their entry.

by Beverly Amsler

Several children and their parents put their model building skills together and built a robot during the annual Indoor Robot Parade at the Science Museum of Western Virginia in the Tanglewood Mall. The event began with a robot workshop and ended with those robots being part of the tabletop parade.

Henry Bass was one of the organizers of the event.  He says the families were building a basic line follower robot that “is equipped with a single sensor that’ll look at light and dark and follow a line, and then also a bumper in front.”  There was a main box with batteries that served as the brain and the various parts, including legs and wheels, were fitted onto it.

The robots were part of the Mindstorm kit by LEGO, which Bass says is popular for the FIRST LEGO League kit competitions and the FIRST Tech Challenge.  (FIRST stands For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.)  The kits can be purchased for about $270-$280 online.

Sam English and his 10-year-old son, Matthew, from Roanoke County were following an instruction booklet with no words, only pictures.  Putting together a kit is something rather new to them.  “We have one (an old generation model robot) that we picked up at a yard sale and so we played with it but it didn’t have all the pieces,” says Sam who thought they might have some pieces left over this time around.  “Look at the diagram and find the pieces,” was Matthew’s strategy to building the LEGO robot.

At another table, Jennifer Young from Lexington watched her daughters, 9-year-old Katie and 6-year-old Janie, build their robot.  The family was going to move into a new house Saturday but they postponed the move so the girls could come to Roanoke and participate in the event.  Jennifer says Katie is very interested in science “and has been wanting to build a robot for awhile.”  Katie even received a model car kit for Christmas to encourage her creativity.  Jennifer had a feeling the family would be ordering a LEGO kit afterward.

She says the girls weren’t intimidated at all by the project.  “They already know how to do the basic LEGO parts so this is something that they’re familiar with.”  She says Katie is interested in learning how to write the programs to make the robot move, “because she has ideas of what she wants the robots to do for her when she grows up.  In fact, she wants to design a robot that’ll help her with her homework.  But I think if she’s able to design the robot that helps her with her homework, she’s not going to need a robot to help her with her homework.”  Katie says she likes robots, “Because they’re cool.  Sometimes they’re helpful.”

Bass says the purpose of the event was very simple.  “We’re just introducing some folks to the idea that robots are a fun and exciting discipline.  This is part of the Roanoke-Blacksburg Technology Council and our STEM outreach for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.  And we want folks to see that science and math is fun and that it’s got real practical applications.”