South Buffalo robotics camp puts fun into science

| Thursday, July 19, 2012, 9:43 p.m.

SOUTH BUFFALO -- The robot-building team of Issac Beck and Caleb Bowser was stumped -- but that didn't last for long.

The miniature, computer programmed mobile robot they had built for a run at an obstacle course competition on Thursday during the week-long Penn State Electro-Optics Center sponsored summer robotics camp for middle school boys and girls at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania Northpointe Campus in South Buffalo wouldn't follow the black line.

The pair were racking their brains for a solution to the problem.

"I think we got it," said Beck, 12, of Sarver, who sat back down at the computer for another calculation.

That's when Bowser, 13, of Freeport, noticed something wrong with their machine.

"The sensor was in the wrong port," he said. So they plugged it in again and returned to the competition.

"It wasn't their calculations -- those were correct," said instructor Jeff Voelker, a Penn State Electro-Optics Center physicist. "It was just a wiring problem. It's a good thing they knew to look for that." Voelker was one of six instructors at the camp.

This was the second of three robotics camps this summer at the college. Nineteen students attended it and there were 22 at the previous camp.

The camps are a joint effort of the Penn State Electo-Optics Center and the IUP campus. Both are in Armstrong County's Northpointe Industrial Park in South Buffalo.

The camp's goal is to promote science, technology, math and engineering to local students.

The annual robotics camp is coordinated by PSU EOC in partnership with the National Science Foundation, Armstrong County Forum for Workforce Excellence, FLIR Systems, the Female Allliance in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math and IUP.

The camp uses LEGO Mindstorms kits to show students how to build and program robots. Officials said many of the students begin the camp with little or no knowledge about robotics but by the end of the week they have programmed their robots' sensors to navigate various obstacles.

The week ends with a challenge of teams having their robots perform a series of tasks while avoiding a number of obstructions.

On another competing team, Henry Gamble, 13, of Freeport, was having his own problems with a robot.

Gamble and Rohit Nandakumar, 12, of Fox Chapel, kept stopping short of an obstacle. For robot programming, when it comes to sensors, timing is everything, they said.

"The sensor, apparently we had it go a little too short," said Gamble. "We gave it 12 seconds. I think we have to give it 15."

Each of the student teams of two had six attempts to complete the course.

The winning team gets the first place prize. Certificates and other awards are given at the camp.

Parents, grandparents and friends were on hand at the challenge cheering on the campers to a win. The camp ends today (Friday) with the participants and their parents attending an awards ceremony.

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