How do you teach middle-school boys about industrial design and teamwork, and perhaps get them thinking about a career in engineering?
Here’s an idea: remote-control robots.
For the past seven weeks, about 50 boys from Lexington and Frankfort have spent three hours a week designing, building and operating remote-control robots for a competition at Newton’s Attic, a non-profit education facility on Versailles Road.
The minority sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders are students at the Fayette County Public Schools’ Carter G. Woodson Academy, the BMW (Black Males Working) Academy at First Baptist Church Bracktown and a Franklin County Schools program that partners with Kentucky State University in Frankfort.
“It’s about learning the engineering process,” said Dawn Cloyd, who with her husband, mechanical engineer Bill Cloyd, runs Newton’s Attic.
“You have a problem and certain needs and then you design, build and test a solution,” she said. “The testing is where you run into failure, and that’s where you have a lot of learning, because you have to redesign and retest.”
Here’s the scenario the boys were given for the Meltdown Robo-Challenge: A nuclear reactor is in meltdown and people are trapped inside the building.
Teams of boys must figure out how to build a robot that can pick up a small canister of simulated iodine pills from one part of the reactor building — actually, a maze of partitioned cubicles at Newton’s Attic — and get it to where the people are trapped in another part of the building.
They must hand off the canister from one robot to another, all the while avoiding simulated fires in the reactor building. Oh, and they must do all of this in the dark.
Here’s how they do it:
Using computer software, the boys design remote-control “grabber” arms to pick up and release the canister. Then they make the arms on a CNC (computer numerical control) machine.
The arms are fitted on a robot chassis along with a heat sensor to warn them when a “fire” is near so they can maneuver around it. They also must install a headlight and video camera. That’s so they can steer their robot through the maze while watching a TV monitor.
“When they drive the robot in, they only see what the camera sees,” Cloyd said.
Newton’s Attic developed the Meltdown Robo-Challenge last year with funding from LG&E/Kentucky Utilities, the Raymond Foundation of Indiana and Children’s Charity of the Bluegrass. Kentucky State University joined as a partner this year to expand the program, which is now funded by the Verizon Innovative Learning program and the Raymond Foundation.
Melanie Trowel, a science teacher at the Carter G. Woodson Academy, said her students have learned a lot of skills in this after-school project: collaboration, communication, patience, flexibility and real-world application of knowledge.
“This is a medium for them to be able to learn and not realize they’re learning,” said Trowel, who was Kentucky’s Middle School Teacher of the Year in 2014. “They apply the skills they’ve learned in the classroom. They see the application and realize the need for the knowledge. And they love it.”
Jathan Briscoe, 12, the only sixth-grader to do the Meltdown Robo-Challenge last year, was eager to participate again.
“It gives us a time to be free after school and have teamwork,” he said. “We like being together, having each other’s back if we need help.”
Besides, he said, it’s a lot of fun. Briscoe is already planning a career in engineering.
“My mom says that when I was little I used to take apart her phone and put it back together,” he said. “She said I should get into this.”