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Science, math, robotics incorporated in year-round club

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The Bartholomew County 4-H Fair is more than just frogs and hogs.

It is also about math, science and robots.

Four children hovered over their laptops outside the Fairgrounds’ David Boll Theatre Wednesday — but they weren’t browsing Facebook or Twitter.

Instead they were programming Lego Mindstorm robots to follow the outline of a circle on the table and navigate around two obstacles.

The prize: A snow cone on Paul Pulkowski’s dime.

Pulkowski, an electrical engineer and software writer at Cummins Inc., is the leader for the 4-H Robotics Club and felt compelled to offer his advanced students an incentive to take on the task.

He’s been leading the year-round club for about three years now, and the demonstration at the fair is the group’s final, impromptu challenge.

“They’re at the point where they can look at a problem and solve it themselves,” he said.

Erika Bonnet, the 4-H youth development director of Bartholomew County’s Purdue Cooperative Extension Service, proposed the club a few years ago to keep fair projects relevant.

She secured state grant money to buy about 25 robot kits for $300 a piece and left the rest to Pulkowski.

He meets with the 25 members once a week during the school year to go through a list of tasks to complete, and he said he’s hoping to expand the program to include more advanced assignments.

He said he would like to help students build their own robots by incorporating programming and other 4-H projects such as welding.

But the club’s current offerings are still appealing, Pulkowski said.

By offering robotics activities through 4-H, instead of as an after-school extracurricular or through a league such as FIRST Robotics, the students are exposed to both technology and soft skills.

4-H is a youth development and empowerment organization, and he said the large local membership offers a wide base from which to recruit.

Kids are required to complete demonstrations, displays and conversations on top of the technical tasks.

“The science and math aspects of this are phenomenal, but they’re also required to explain their train of thought,” Pulkowski said.

Bryce Eckelman, who will be going into seventh grade at St. Peters Lutheran School, said he would have joined 4-H anyway, and he opted to join the robotics club because it looked like a harder challenge.

Ethan Hoke, a soon-to-be eighth-grader at Hauser Jr.-Sr. High School, said he looks forward to completing the challenges each year and the club has boosted his interest in science and robotics.

“It’s a great team activity,” Pulkowski said. “They get to work together and see the different approaches the other kids might take to reach a solution.”

His twin sons, Anthony and Austin Pulkowski, who will be entering sixth grade at Columbus Signature Academy Lincoln Campus, said they joined the club because they wanted to have their own robots.

Austin, who is 17 minutes older than his brother, wants to be a scientist when he grows up.

He likes the club because he can learn how to program the robots.

“You can even make them do chores,” Austin said.

Anthony chimed in, “And everyone knows robots are awesome.”

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