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Teaching Science and Technology with the Help of a Robot

by Dorothee Kellinghusen, staff writer

Sophomore Claire Doemland created this robot for her Program Planning class for her Environmental Education major. Photo by Dorothee Kellinghusen

Sophomore Claire Doemland and her companion get quite some attention when they walk down the hallways, even though it is not a little puppy that is with her.

Doemland is often accompanied by a little robot that she built a few weeks ago. The cute-looking machine moves in front of her with frequent stops to lift up things or just to spin around.

The robot looks like Wall-E from the Disney movie with its raised infrared eyes and its forklift that moves up and down. Doemland put it together one afternoon in her dorm room and gave it several functions. Now, the little robot can pick up an empty plastic bottle, a tennis shoe or even some pens. But it is not just moving around for fun—the robot is part of an after-school program for middle school kids which Doemland is developing this semester as part of the requirements of her Program Planning class here at Warren Wilson.

At first, it looks like the little Lego robot is on its own, but Doemland is always close by, giving the high-tech machine directions with her iPhone, which she uses as a remote control.

When students realize the connection, they get curious and stop and watch the robot do its tricks. It moves on running treads, which allows Doemland to maneuver it forward, backwards and sideways. The robot can even turn on the spot. When it aims to pick up an object, like a paper ball, Doemland positions the forklift with the remote precisely in front of the wadded up paper, then slowly moves the robot forward until the forks can lift it up. Now, she can have it transported to the trash can, but from there Doemland still has to pick it up to throw it away, because the little robot is barely one by two feet in size. After all, it is a toy.

Doemland has been building and working with robots since the sixth grade. Now the 19-year-old is in her second year at Warren Wilson and is majoring in Environmental Education. In her Program Planning class, students create original programs based on their own interests. Students create lesson plans, write needs assessments, and make marketing plans, to name a few. Doemland used her knowledge and passion for electronic toys to create a program for middle school students. The robot gets them interested in science, technology, engineering and math (also known as STEM).

It took Doemland less than two hours to construct the Wall-E-like robot. She used the newest Lego Mindstorms Robotic Kit which comes with building parts including a complex geared system, several motors, lights, and, most importantly, the “brick,” or brain of the machine. It is a small computer with two sensors. One sensor responds to ultrasonic signals and the other is activated by infrared wavelengths.

“Basically, you can use any kind of control to operate the robot,” said Doemland.

She prefers to use an app on her iPhone while walking on campus.

The brick also comes with a USB-connection, four ports for motor connections and four more for sensors. It also has Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and a slot for a micro SD-card.

The forklift robot is the first object she built with the new kit.

“But it is easy to take it apart to give it a new look and different functions,” Doemland said.

During her high school years, Doemland went to competitions with a team as well as by herself. Just during her senior year she attended eight robotics competitions. Third place was her best achievement, but more important than the success, she said, “it was a great thing to be part of.”

Doemland's robot is only about two feet tall but can pick up objects with its forklift attachment. Photo by Dorothee Kellinghusen

She made friends with people who share the same interest and learned a lot about the world of robots.

“And it really helped me to make sense of science, technology, engineering and math,” said Doemland.

Because she knows firsthand about the benefits of constructing and operating a robot, she would like to see the robot program implemented in the after school program at middle schools in Buncombe County.

“The design as well as the construction creates a challenge that applies theoretical classroom lecture to the real world,” Doemland said.

Once the robots are constructed and functioning, the students create games with rules to compete with other students and even other schools.

“My goal is to show kids how useful and important STEM is,” Doemland said. “They figure that out themselves while building some kind of robot and giving it some functions that are really cool. And in return, it makes learning math and science in the classroom much more interesting.”



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