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Portland camp helps students learn engineer basics with Legos

From marshmallows to mayhem, robots rule
by: Jim Clark  Jonathan Mazurkiewyicz, left, and Hayden Kehn watch the robot arm spin a marshmallow through the air.

Sometimes, you have to Lego the love, Regan Garrett says at the robot-building camp in Portland Lutheran School.

'It's all fun until we get into the robot wars,' he says. 'Then it's a whole different mode. Then we all hate each other.'

Hate? Each other? OK, Garrett says, maybe the boys don't actually hate each other. However …

'The robots hate each other.'

No matter who's doing the hating, it's clear a bunch of young inquisitive minds have taken charge of small, yet powerful, machines that can tear each other limb from artificial limb.

Combat is just one of the tests the students' robots must undergo during the camp, which employs Lego Mindstorms kits to teach the children to build and program task-completing toys.

'This is a self-paced, self-challenge camp, which means students can work at the pace they are comfortable with,' says Kiefer Tarbell, a Portland Lutheran science teacher who oversees the weekday camp, which began July 18 and concludes Friday, July 29.

'We're just trying to introduce them to engineering and problem solving,' he adds. 'We take periodic breaks to talk and reinforce good engineering practices, but these breaks are relatively short, so they can get back to the fun stuff.'

Tarbell says students start by building a standard Mindstorm robot with simple programming challenges and work their way up to challenges that force the students to re-engineer their robots.

'The programming gets more complex with each new challenge so the students walk away at the end of camp with a solid understanding of the basics,' he says.

Terror toys

During the July 26 session, Tarbell says the students have learned how to use computer software to program their robots, which look far more complicated than the Legos most grownups remember.

These toys have angular arms, inhuman claws, deep treaded wheels and light sensors. When put together, the Lego robots can toss marshmallows, run races and strike terror into kittens and cockroaches, should any dare to wander into their path.

These robots are also fearless, rolling into a field of landmines disguised as paper cups with no apparent concern their short mechanical lives might end.

'If you hit one of those cups, you're going to blow up,' Tarbell tells one of the students, as his Lego robot does a macabre dance of near-death on the table-turned-minefield.

For most of its sojourn, the robot survives, but then … BOOM.

Dream big

Everything from a desire for fun to figuring out their future has motivated the students to attend the camp.

Take Garrett, 14, a freshman at Portland Lutheran High School. Curiosity compelled him to spend part of his summer here, he says.

'I just wanted to see what it was about,' he says, noting he's learned about 'building robots, programming and having fun.'

Hayden Kehn, 11, a sixth-grader at Gordon Russell Middle School, says, 'I'm good at building Lego sets, and I just thought that this would be cool.'

He says he's particularly proud to have programmed a robot to pick up cans placed inside a ring, as well as to make the contraption follow a black line.

'It was pretty cool to watch it move back and forth on the line,' he says.

Jonathan Mazurkiewyicz, 10, a fifth-grader at Portland Lutheran, has been trying to get his robot to toss marshmallows. He says the class appealed to him because 'I have a creative mind.

'I also have a lot of Legos at my house.'

Tarbell notes what looks like fun and games now can actually be applied to the students' future adult careers. For example, he says, the students worked on a robot than can detect cracks in a tube. Such a machine, on a large scale, would come in handy in a number of fields, including sewage pipeline networks, he says.

The young men, however, have more practical concerns. Mazurkiewyicz, for example, wants to design a skateboard that hovers in the air.

'You ride it just like a regular skateboard,' he says. Indeed, you can almost see the thought cloud above his head depicting a skater floating above it all with no concern for gravity.

Equally pragmatic, Kehn wants to build a life-size Lego house someday. Garrett, however, ends the discussion on a cautionary note.

'But the beds would probably be hard to sleep on,' he says.