Pupils learn with robots

In the robotics program, kids enjoy applying what they've learned.
CANFIELD -- The tiny plastic gear wheel slipped through Meredith Gleichert's fingers, bounced off the floor and came to rest near the eighth-grader's feet.
"It's the 10th time it's fallen out today!" she complained as she and classmate Alexis Fetty scrambled to pick it up and put it where it belonged in the robotic car she was trying to reassemble.
Were they a team at the Canfield Village Middle School 2006-07 Robotics Derby?
No, Alexis said. The 40 eighth-graders who participated in the derby each had their own cars.
But there was definitely some teamwork involved at the derby Thursday in the school gym. If one child's car wouldn't finish an obstacle course, another child might help take it apart to figure out what was wrong.
The little purple cars used touch sensors on an obstacle course that had wooden walls they could feel their way along, or they used light sensors on their undersides to follow a course with a wavy black line.
At a table that was serving as a kind of pit stop away from the courses, Alexis was pitching in to help get Meredith's car back on track.
Low-key competition
There's no intense competition at the derby, said David Izzo, who runs the school's robotics program.
What there is instead is companionship for a group of kids whose interests may not lie in sports or in joining the chess club, he said. "We don't want any kid to leave this middle school without getting involved in something."
There's a competition against the robot itself -- against the technology, to get it to run properly, he said.
"My kids learn programming in seventh grade," he said. "Here they learn about mechanics -- of light sensors and touch sensors and circuit boards, and gearing up and down, because they have to assemble their own drive trains.
"It's almost an engineering prep-type deal. A lot of kids at this age are interested in technology. At this age, it's all about the application. The excitement occurs when they can apply what they've learned," he said.
The derby also is an activity at which everyone can be successful, he said.
Not to mention, there's a T-shirt for everyone. And oh yes -- there's pizza.
The derby is the big finale of the after-school robotics program, which is open to any eighth-grader, Izzo said.
It's all age-appropriate, with not a lot of time commitment -- kids meet for a week beforehand to build their cars, he said. This year's group met before spring break.
"The concept of a middle school is to give them a taste of a lot of things," said Izzo, who teaches computer-aided drafting, robotics and modern technology. "They may decide they never want to do robotics again. Or they may become an engineer."