Engineering a generation

As Nathan Miller showed off his newly built robot, he didn’t miss a beat. 
Displaying the ins and outs of his small machine made of tiny bits of Lego, he explained precisely why his creation is superior to the competition.

“Our robot is flat, so if someone else’s ultrasonic sensor is taller, it will go right over ours,” he said. “We made a wall shield in the front that will scoop up their robot and take it away, too.”

He went on and on about the robot – spewing out hi-tech lingo about “NXT core technology” and “Mindstorm applications” – phrases that can even fly over a human’s “ultrasonic sensor.”

Listening to Miller’s thorough understanding of the complex machines, you wouldn’t think his robotics education started just one week ago. He hasn’t even reached his teenage years.

Miller was one of eight 4th, 5th and 6th graders at Snow Creek to build solar powered race cars and fighting robots this week as part of an educational camp offered through CyberKids Robotics, a non-profit company that seeks to improve Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Education in North Carolina.  

The Snow Creek mini-engineers were recommended for the program by teachers and will make up the school’s new robotic team. CyberKids will help prepare the team for the qualifying stages of the state robotics championship that will be contested in January 2012.

On Thursday, the Snow Creek students showed off robots they have been building all week in small teams. They held a “sumo-wrestling” competition in front of parents to see whose robot was designed most efficiently – a friendly game that CyberKids Vice President for Development Bill Kent said combines fun and learning.

“It’s a building program that incorporates engineering and mathematical skills,” Kent said. “They are thinking on their own and designing everything themselves. Everything the kids are doing, they are essentially writing code.”

After building the robots out of Lego pieces and a motor, the students use computer software to program a “brain” that controls the machine. The “brain” transcribes information the students have programmed and makes the robot function.

Michael Grant, a rising fourth-grader at Snow Creek, said building is his favorite part. 
“I’ve always wanted to build things to try and help people,” Grant said. “It’s very fun to program and build it, and Legos are the best thing to let your imagination run wild.” 
Grant said his team designed their robot for defense and said their shield is the best feature that will help them in the sumo-wrestling competition between the bots. 
“We were really trying to protect the wheels and rely on our defense,” he said. 
Anna Rich’s team named its robot, “Bob” and said their advantage is beauty. 
“Our robot will win because it’s prettier,” Rich said.

Rich said building the bots is fun, but has enjoyed meeting new friends. 
“I like the idea that you get to learn stuff and meet new people at the same time,” she said.

After describing the reasoning and intricacies of his team’s robot, Miller said engineering has always been an interest.

“I’ve always wanted to be an engineer and help people out,” he said. “It’s cool that we can build the robot and tell it what to do, but meeting new people is fun, too.”

The program is funded by a grant from Target in addition to Hickory Orthopedic and Volex, said Debbie McCall, the Snow Creek staff coordinator for the program.

Though the students’ robots squared off against one-another Thursday, the Snow Creek team will work together on robots in the future. In September, the team will start working toward the state robotics championship. The qualifying tournament is in November, and the state championship will be held in January or February in Greensboro, Kent said.

For more information on CyberKids, visit