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Robot rulers: Campers learn real-world applications of robots

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BEMIDJI — The course was set, the robots were placed and the competitors of the Dream It, Do It / VEX robotics camp waited for their signal to enter the arena.

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"Thumbs up and ready to drive?" Andrew Dahlen, a robotics camp organizer, asked the students. Competitors’ thumbs rose from the joystick and seconds later the race was on.

Eighteen area students participated in the robotics camp, sponsored by the 360 Manufacturing and Applied Engineering ATE Center of Excellence, this week at Bemidji State University to learn more about the electronics and robotics industry.

"The purpose of this is was to give them a little more training and expose them more to the industry," Dahlen said. "It’s fun to teach them (campers) and see how excited they get."

To start the week, students ranging from grades seven through 11 were exposed to the art of electronic coding and problem solving, where they then applied that knowledge to build a robot as a group.

After becoming accustomed to the equipment, Dahlen said the campers split into teams of two to create their own robot to compete at the "Toss Up" game, which concluded the event Friday.

"Programming got a little tiring, but it’s been worth it," camper Nolan Flint said. "Robotics is mostly about problem solving."

Flint, 15, is a returning robotics camper to BSU. The high school sophomore said he has competed in many VEX robotics competitions over the past year or so, placing in the top five consistently.

"Toss Up," is the 2013-2014 VEX competition course that will travel to a variety of venues throughout the year.

According to Dahlen, the "Toss Up" portion of the event was a good way to expose the students to the electronics and robotics industry without them being aware of it.

"A lot of the times, the kids didn’t even realize what they were learning has real world applications," he said.

To give students a better perspective of the need for professionals in this field, the robotics camp toured TEAM Industries in Bagely to get a firsthand experience in how their interest in robotics might translate into a future career.

"The problem we see too often is we have lost so many of the technical programs in the state," said Dahlen, who teaches electronics at Northland Community and Technical College in Thief River Falls. "I figure this (robotics camps) might be a good way to pull out the folks with an interest in it."

A graduate from BSU, Dahlen was inspired to start promoting robotics camps around the state when he saw declining numbers in his class enrollments at Northland.

Katie Coltom , who like Flint is a returning camper, said she is seriously considering a career in the electronic industry because of the robotics camps she’s attended.

It’s been fun and really interesting with the combination of designs and programs we’ve been doing," she said.

The competition

Building a total of eight robots, campers programmed the machines to be able to function in the "Toss Up" arena.

The competition included a hanging bar and different barriers, affecting how the teams designed their robots to ultimately score points. Teams took part in eight qualification rounds to rack up as many points as they could, since the team with the most points at the end of the qualification matches was allowed to choose who they faced in the elimination rounds.

Team Wolfgan scored the most points during qualification rounds, scoring 55 points in one round.

In order to score points, teams were divided into two groups — red and blue — and had to get their corresponding colored balls of varying size into different areas. The harder the area to place the balls resulted in more point value.

"It is the best experience you will ever have," said William Kluge, whose team was placed in the blue alliance. "If you don’t go you will never know how awesome it is."

After two rounds of elimination, teams then moved onto finals, where the ultimate robotic team would be crowned champion.

Entering the final match, the red alliance came out on top, taking the Dream It, Do It / VEXES robotics camp championship title.

All competitiveness aside, Dahlen said being able to see how excited campers were about robotics made for a successful week of learning.

"It’s inspiring to see these kids in action and have them so excited about this," Dahlen said. "It’s everything I could have hoped it (the camp) would be — the designs, the creativity, it was all worth it."

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