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Swaner EcoCenter recruiting kids for 4-H Robotic Clubs

Robots often find themselves spotlighted in many facets of pop culture, from R2-D2 and C3PO from "Star Wars" films to Marvin from Douglas Adams’ "Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy" books and in Isaac Asimov’s "I, Robot" novel series.

Arguably, even the alien, metal creatures in the "Transformer" franchise could be technically considered robots.

These mechanical wonders continually inspire and frighten people with their super-human strength and analytical minds, and many children have dreamed of creating robots for themselves.

That dream will come true when the Swaner EcoCenter and the Summit County 4-H begin holding their High School and Elementary School Robotics Clubs.

The clubs, especially the high school group, are recruiting students to help build and test robots for a couple of upcoming competitions, said Sally Upton, director of education of the Swaner EcoCenter.

"They will compete in what is known as the Tech Challenges that are presented by the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) organization," said Upton, who is also a Utah State University extension assistant professor. "The High School Club will participate in the Tech Challenge, which is sponsored by Weber State University, and the elementary club will take part in the FIRST Lego League (FLL) competition, which is essentially the same as the Tech Challenge."

In order to do so, the clubs will begin meeting one day a week at the Swaner EcoCenter to design their robots.

The idea for the clubs emerged when Upton was planning the EcoCenter’s summer camps back in February.

"I thought about all the different types of programs we offer and, obviously, being the Swaner, we include a lot of outdoor and nature programs," she said. "However, I also am drawn towards other types of sciences and I knew robotics was a popular subject and topic among the youth. So, I decided to do a robotics summer camp."

Upton learned the basics of robotics and offered the camp for younger kids this past summer.

After the camp, Laura Monty, an environmental engineer who lives in Park City, contacted Upton.

"She and her son Brett, who is a Park City High School student, have really been active in the robotics community and those types of competitions," Upton explained. "She came to me with the idea of starting a new high school robotics club.

"So, Laura, Brett and Kevin Williams, a mechanical engineering graduate student at the University of Utah, will be the main leaders of the high school club that will include students in ninth through 12th grades, and I’m going to help out as much as I can," Upton said.

The elementary-aged club that is designed for eight- and nine-year-olds was organized in a similar fashion.

I was approached by Wendi Laurence, who is a NASA curriculum developer, and is very versed in robotics and science," Upton said. "She has a club that she led in her basement, and wanted to see if it could develop in to a community club at Swaner."

As of now, the elementary-aged club is full, but there are still some openings in the high-school group.

"Every year in September, the FIRST organization announces a challenge for these clubs to build a robot that can do various tasks," Upton said. "People from all over the country that are in robotics clubs, heed the call and participate in the challenge."

Park City will hold a regional competition for the Lego League in January and plans are underway for the high school club to participate in the Tech Challenge at Weber State University, Upton said.

"They are all doing the same competition as the other clubs around the nation, and they’ll get points for how efficient the robots do the tasks and how many tasks they complete," Upton said. "Winners will advance to the national competition that’s held in St. Louis, Missouri in April."

While the robotic clubs are designed to encourage creativity, the children who participate will also learn other skills such as problem solving and teamwork.

"It’s interesting because when people hear the word robotics, a lot of them don’t have any desire to get involved because they feel they aren’t mechanically inclined," Upton said. "Sure there are mechanics involved but you also learn about designing, building, testing and programming, you also learn teamwork, because you’re working in a team to attain a common goal with a project."

All these skills and thought processes are learned and developed by building robots.

"We all know that kids take math and science classes, but to see how some of those theories and processes work in the real world is very beneficial," Upton said. "When building a robot, the kids need to be able to take measurements and think about fractions and decimals and things like that.

"Whether a child is interested in robots or not, they will still learn and apply these skills and once they realize they can get a robot to do something, they will get all excited," she said.

For more information about the Swaner EcoCenter and Summit County 4-H Robotics Clubs, contact Sally Upton by calling (435) 252-3576.


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