Lego class sparks engineering interest

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Seth Carmichael and Marshall Harshberger work on constructing their robot during Tuesday’s Lego Robotics Club at Muldown Elementary. A video of the Lego class is available at www.dailyinterlake.com.

Seth Carmichael and Marshall Harshberger know that sometimes functionality has to be sacrificed for coolness’ sake.

The fourth-graders at Muldown Elementary in Whitefish readily acknowledge that other members of the district’s Lego Robotics Club have better robots than they do. But their robot has something the others don’t.

“Ours isn’t the cleanest, best robot,” Marshall said.

Seth cut in hurriedly. “But that’s because ours has bigger wheels.”

And, as just about any fourth-grade boy can attest, big wheels are much cooler than regular wheels.

The robots in the club have much more than wheels. They have high-tech sensors that can detect motion, distance and light. They can be programed via computer to follow patterns and obey their creators’ instructions.

In short, Legos in general are much cooler than they were a generation ago.

Kellie Harnar first discovered the exciting world of Legos after reading her son’s Lego magazines. She was inspired to create a Lego Robotics Club, which is open to Whitefish students in third through eighth grades.

The club rents Lego kits from Texas Tech University, where Harnar was trained over the summer in all things Lego. She is a high school algebra teacher who needed to renew her teaching credentials, and she chose to do so by taking a class in Lego robotics at Texas Tech.

The university is one of only two in the country that rents the robotics kits to schools, Harnar said. The kits would cost the students — or their parents — about $300 apiece, she said, so for the $70 each student pays, the club members get a bargain.

They don’t get to keep the kits, but being able to use them for an hour and a half a week for 10 weeks is something the kids in the club look forward to.

“This class is awesome!” fourth-grader Dakota Johnson said enthusiastically during a recent class, thrusting his hands in the air.

The club has two sessions, one of which meets after school on Tuesdays, the other on Thursdays. Each class has about 12 students, mostly boys, who work in pairs to program and play with their robots.

During a recent session, the boys installed light sensors on their robots. The goal was to program the machines to detect a difference between light and dark colors, so the robots would move along a squiggly black line drawn on white cardboard.

Seth and Marshall turned their robot over in their hands, looking for the perfect place to put the sensor. They worked well together, each offering suggestions and listening to the other’s ideas.

Marshall grabbed the sensor and pointed to a space near the robots’ front “legs,” which were capped by the oversized wheels.

“Seth, if you put this here and clip it on like that ...” Marshall looked to his friend, who nodded his approval.

While they worked, they enthusiastically discussed their personal Lego collections. Marshall said his grows every year.

“All my life, I’ve had a Lego Christmas,” he told Seth, who shook his head in envy.

“I’ve never had a Lego Christmas,” Seth said.

Once the light sensor was clipped onto the robot, the boys were ready to program it. They plugged in a USB cable and headed for the computer lab, where Harnar and her husband, Jim, showed the class how to program the robots to move along the curving black line.

It took most boys several attempts to get the programming right. Third-grader Josiah Holien and Ethan Mercer, a fourth-grader from Whitefish Christian Academy, were the first pair to get their robot to wobble along the squiggly path.

“Look! Ours is working!” Josiah yelled to the class, who rushed over to see. The robot jerked unevenly along the cardboard but moved steadily along the black line’s curved path.

“It’s going! It’s going!” Marshall shouted, as the robot reached the end of the line and turned around. “It’s coming back — look out!”

Inspired by the first team’s success, the boys returned to their own robots to tweak the programming.

They’ll get the basics down by Christmas break, Harnar said. Next semester she will offer one intermediate class for those who want to continue in the club. She also will offer another beginners’ section.

Next fall, if there is enough interest, Harnar said she will start a First Lego League club to compete against other clubs in the state. She also plans to continue holding regular club classes after school.

For further information about the club, contact Harnar at 863-9118.

Reporter Kristi Albertson may be reached at 758-4438 or by e-mail at kalbertson@dailyinterlake.com

Dakota Johnson celebrates the successful launch of his ball from a robot catapult he built with teammate Chris Sheehan, right.

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