Nebraska Robotics Expo engages children in math, science, technology

By Kelsey Hill on February 18th, 2013

The fourth annual Nebraska Robotics Expo took place all day Saturday at the Strategic Air & Space Museum in Ashland.

About 800 youths from all over Nebraska participated in the expo, which was split into the CEENBoT showcase and the FIRST LEGO League (FLL). The Expo is a collaboration among the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Nebraska at Omaha, among others.

The theme for this year’s FLL was “Senior Solutions.” Each team met with a senior partner to identify an issue affecting the elderly and later present his or her research solution to the judges. In the league, teams are judged based on project presentations, core values and robot design.

“It’s not only about the robots in FLL, we have that real world application of their learning as well,” said Kathy Morgan, FLL operational partner in University of Nebraska-Lincoln 4-H Youth Development.

In the tournament, the groups compete in “missions” with their robots. Each mission has a different level of difficulty and is worth a range of points, so the teams must be selective about what missions to attempt to complete in their allotted time of two and a half minutes.

Warriors, a Girl Scout team hailing from Lincoln, said they find preparing for the FIRST LEGO League tournaments stressful at times, but ultimately they’ve brought cohesion to the group.

“This is really important to us because last year we did it, but we were one place away from making it to state,” team member Elyssa Clatt said. “But this time we were in the top five, top 10. We were really, really surprised.”

Youth ages 9 to 14 compete in the FLL tournaments, and children ages 6 to 9 compete in the junior section.

Brad Barker, UNL 4-H Youth Development Science and Technology specialist, is working with volunteer Keith Mandachit, an electrical engineer with Huffman Engineering Inc., to create a FIRST Tech Challenge for students in grades nine to 12.

“What we (want to) do is have children be able to come in at 6 years old and go all the way through 18 years and have a continuum of experiences in STEM and robotics,” Barker said.

The CEENBoT Robotics Showcase made up the other half of the expo. Teams use CEENBoTs, a robot platform that is the result of educational research and development by the Silicon Prairie Initiative for Robotics in Information Technology collaboration between the UNL Department of Computer and Electronics Engineering and the UNO College of Education. It was funded by two grants from the National Science Foundation.

“We’re really looking at the future leaders of tomorrow,” said Neal Grandgenett, the Haddix Community chair of STEM Education in the Teacher Education Department at UNO. “We’re trying to get (kids) excited about technology in the current area. It’s a great place to do this in the Strategic Air & Space Museum, and it really is a testimonial to the proud heritage of engineering that we’ve had in the past.”

Barker said he thought the kids enjoyed the expo.

“The thing that tells me (the expo) is successful is that you can’t get them to stop,” Barker said. “They’re not sitting there watching the clock; they’re very engaged.”

The kids are learning how to cooperate with each other and work together in finding a solution to a problem, said Morgan, the FLL operational partner. “The focus is on the celebration of their learning,” she said. “We do give out awards for FLL, but at the end of the day, it’s really about having fun.”

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