Drawing the future: Latino students explore robotics in camp

A robot made of LEGOs drew some inspiration from popular culture to connect local students to a future in engineering.

About 30 students attending a Purdue Polytechnic Institute robotics camp first turned their workshop into LEGO Land for a week and then received a visit from Billy, a robot made out of LEGOs and mechanical sensors.

Lauro Ojeda, a research scientist at the University of Michigan, led a demonstration at the camp Friday featuring Billy, which he had programmed to complete a task that all kids are familiar with — drawing.

With two blank sheets of paper and a black pen, Billy the robot drew a portrait of Yoda from “Star Wars” and Elsa from “Frozen,” as the campers tried to guess just what Billy was drawing as the portraits unfolded. Two lucky campers went home with each of the portraits, signed by Billy himself.

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“The idea of bringing the robot is that maybe some of these children will see that robotics is not that different from what they normally play with,” Ojeda said.

The annual robotics camp allows students, ages 8 to 14, to be immersed in the world of robotics for three hours a day during a week-long camp, said camp director Joe Fuehne, who also is director of the Purdue Polytechnic Institute in Columbus.

The camp is planned as a way to immerse kids in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

But this year, Fuehne and his team changed the strategy behind one of the camps. For the first time since establishing it 12 years ago, Fuehne partnered with IT Robotics, which recently opened in North Vernon, to offer a free camp specifically for Latino students.

The LEGO Robotics Camp for Latino Youth attracted students from around Bartholomew County.

“The idea is to get more kids interested in these fields,” Fuehne said.

Each year, Fuehne said he sees fewer Latino children signing up for the general camp, which costs $60. As a way to encourage Latino families to participate, he sought the partnership with IT Robotics, which specializes in industrial robot integration for application in production sectors.

Miguel Vidal, general manager at IT Robotics, said all costs were covered through the sponsorship, including T-shirts, LEGO sets for each student and snacks.

Better than homework

Ten-year-old Andrea De Alba and her 8-year-old brother, Luis De Alba, said they woke up at 6 a.m. on the final day of camp and rushed their mother out of bed in order to be the first ones to arrive at camp for Friday’s presentation, which had a 9 a.m. start.

“They love LEGO robotics,” said Toyi Rodriguez, Andrea and Luis’ mother. “They come home super excited. They learn how to program robots and come home showing me what pieces they want to buy.”

Andrea and Luis were two of the 30 students selected for the specialized camp.

“My favorite part has been working in a team and building the robot all together,” Andrea said. “We have so many challenges to complete. The first day I was in a group, we were building our robot and I had no idea what it would be like. I started getting more used to it. It was more fun each day.”

Campers kicked off the week working together in teams to build a robot using LEGO Mindstorm sets.

Then Fuehne introduced four sensors to the students that they eventually installed into their individual robots. Campers learned how to use an ultrasonic sensor, a sound sensor, a light sensor and a touch sensor — all contributing to how the robot moved.

“It’s better than school,” Andrea said. “It’s a lot more fun than homework because it’s more interesting and you can do so many different things.”

Importance of technology

Fuehne carries the same theme over to every Polytechnic camp: He encourages campers to “give it a try.”

This motto encourages students to try a variety of methods until one is successful.

“It’s all trial and error,” Fuehne said. “We stress for kids to build programs a little bit at a time. If they’re doing trial and error, sometimes they fail. That’s a necessary part of life.”

Ana Lopez said her daughter, 10-year-old Manuela Hernandez, came home from camp every day thinking of ways she could improve her robot.

Lopez first learned about the camp through the Latino Education Group, a local organization that supports Latino education. She said she was extremely grateful for the opportunity to watch her daughter grow in the technology field.

Similarly, Luis Hernandez of Columbus enrolled his son and daughter in the camp after learning about it through the Latino Education Group, and he’s happy he did.

“I know they’re learning so much about robotics skills,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez’s 12-year-old son, Jose Luis, said it was a challenging week, but competing in the final obstacle course on Friday made it all worth it.

“The hardest part was building difficult stuff,” Jose Luis said, referring to building his robot.

Jose Luis was paired with a friend throughout the week. Together, they were responsible for building the robot, installing sensors and programming it to compete. Now, Jose Luis said he could see himself one day building robots for a living.

Sparking an interest

Sparking an interest in robotics is what Ojeda aims for when working with students at camps.

“If you never show a robot to a kid, how do you expect them to do something like that or become interested in robotics if they have never seen that?” Ojeda said. “This is probably something that will not inspire all of the kids, but maybe some of the kids will say, ‘Well, I would like to build these later.'”

Fuehne, who has organized the camp every year, said his favorite day is always the final day — not because the camp is over, but because the students are able to showcase their work.

“When we get to Friday, we have a little competition,” Fuehne said. “We tell campers they can invite parents. It’s really fun to see parents and grandparents show up and watch.”

What makes this a significant moment for Fuehne is to see the support parents have for their children involved in an academic activity, such as robotics.

“For them, robotics becomes their sport,” he said.

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What: LEGO Robotics Camp

Who: Children ages 8 to 14

Where: Purdue Polytechnic Columbus, 4444 Kelly St., Columbus

When: 9 a.m. to noon July 17 to 21

Cost: $60

For more information: Contact Joe Fuehne at 812-348-2040

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IT Robotics is a global engineering company based in Spain that specializes in the design, manufacturing and selling of industrial automation applications, including robots. The company recently opened a site in North Vernon.

To learn more about the company, visit it-robotics.com/en/.

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To learn more about Purdue Polytechnic Institute, visit polytechnic.purdue.edu/.