Robotics build bridge to tech topics in 4-H

By Keri Collins Lewis
MSU Ag Communications

MISSISSIPPI STATE ­ A Pearl River County family learned that 4-H robotics¹
³no experience required² policy opened doors to new skills they never
expected.

Jill Bordelon¹s three children, Emily, Eric and Alex, became interested in
robotics when 4-H first offered the activity in their county in 2009. Led by
their mother, the children formed a team with interested 4-H¹ers to
construct a robot and compete against other robotics teams.

³None of us had done anything like this before,² Jill Bordelon said. ³We got
a kit and muddled through. We all learned at the same time.²

The 4-H robotics project requires more than simply constructing a robot.
Team members have to design and program their robot to accomplish certain
tasks within time and mechanical constraints. Then their robot competes
without additional input or interference from its builders.

For example, in one competition, the robot had to push a button, collect
pingpong balls, go to a firing line and use a catapault arm to fire pingpong
balls at a target.

Bordelon said her inexperience was an advantage because she could not tell
the team members what to do.

³They had to troubleshoot, figure out what was going on and depend on
themselves, and they did,² she said.

Enthusiasm grew in the county as the senior and junior teams competed at
Project Achievement Day and Club Congress — and won.

³Our seniors won first place last year, and I was very proud of them because
of the challenges they overcame,² Bordelon said. ³At first, teams used the
Lego Mindstorm robot at both junior and senior levels, then the seniors had
to switch to a different program and learn a new system, and then they
changed the robot. None of us knew what we were doing.²

At first the team members got frustrated.

³They took the time to figure out the new robot, and when it started
working, it was so rewarding to see their pride,² Bordelon said.

As more 4-H¹ers became interested in robotics, volunteer leaders Bordelon
and Brynia Gilmore founded Megabots, a countywide science, engineering and
technology club.

³We focus on robotics, but we also do a lot of science activities,² Bordelon
said. ³We build circuits, investigate buoyancy — any kind of
science-related activity that we can do, we do.²

The Megabots also work to give back to their community. Last year they
sponsored a food drive for a local food pantry and collected items to send
to military personnel during the holidays.

³The Megabots Club is a great example of the dedication of 4-H volunteers
and their willingness to invest in 4-H youth,² said Mariah Smith, assistant
Extension professor and robotics coordinator for Mississippi State
University¹s Extension Center for Technology Outreach. ³In a very hands-on
way, Jill and Brynia are helping these 4-H¹ers chart a course for the future
and explore new paths for lifelong learning.²

Smith said robotics builds a bridge to related topics.

³Research has shown that robotics can be an exciting gateway to engage youth
in science, technology, engineering and math because it blends hands-on
learning — a key component of 4-H — with fun activities and problems to
solve,² Smith said.

Alex Bordelon, Jill¹s 13-year-old son, said the best parts about being in
Megabots are building the robot and meeting new people.

³I really had fun preparing with my team last year,² he said. ³We all got
along and even when our robot did not do what we wanted it to do, we never
gave up trying.²

His advice to anyone who might want to join 4-H for robotics is to be
persistent.

³Anyone can do it as long as they are willing to work hard and not give up,²
he said.