Building robots, building the future


Hosted by MU’s Neural Engineering Laboratory, the 13th annual Robotics Design Challenge welcomed 325 participating K-8th graders to test the robots they had spent months creating. Photo by Brandan Haskell.

On April 7, the classrooms of Naka Hall filled with aspiring robotics designers from elementary and middle schools across the state.

Hosted by MU’s Neural Engineering Laboratory, the 13th annual Robotics Design Challenge welcomed participating K-8th graders to test the robots they had spent months creating. According to engineering student and event volunteer/MC Martha Gahl, some of the participants have been hard at work on their projects since September.

“The goal is to introduce STEM skills at an early age, and to motivate them to pursue science and engineering careers,” the official event website states.

According to Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department Co-Chair Satish Nair, who has worked to organize the challenge over the last 13 years, the program was first funded by the National Science Foundation in 2006 and has quickly grown in size.

MU’s 2018 Robotics Design Challenge welcomed 325 kids from more than 20 schools, including Columbia Independent School and Fairview Elementary. MU’s Neural Engineering lab also provides outreach and lesson plans to educate students on robotics ahead of the yearly affair. Although unable to attend the April 7 event, Columbia-based West Boulevard Elementary was another robotics and programming participant.

“They come from all over the state, from Springfield to Higginsville,” Nair said.

In groups of two to five children and led by teachers, the students are required to program Lego Mindstorm robots to navigate a provided course.

“We have nine courses, which is more than we’ve ever had because there are more students this year than ever,” Gahl said. “We have about 2 judges per course. The kids show up with their score sheet, and they jump right in, run their robot, and the course judge ticks off when things get started.”

Assessed for various features such as sensors and speed, the judging process consists of two 10-minute increments.

“When they finish at the course, that’s when they go to the programing judging,” she continued.

Although awards are handed out for accolades such as fastest time, most sensors used and most creative in their program, both Gahl and Nair were quick to call it a challenge. Not a competition.

“We tell the kids there are no winners here,” he explained. “It’s more for learning. Engineering is about challenges and solving them, not about winning.”

According to Gahl, the greatest prize a group can win is valued experience.

“It’s not something that I ever got to do, and it’s crazy to see how talented some of them are,” she said. “I took my first programming course when I was in college, and there are kids that are light years ahead of where I was. It’s just amazing what they can do.”

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