Eye On Extension: Learning engineering design through robotics challenge

VALLEY — I just got back from the Colorado State Fair, where I ran the annual State 4-H Robotics Challenge event. At this event, teams from around the state built and programmed Lego robots to accomplish a specific task. This year, they needed to carry a five-pound weight up and over an incline.

To accomplish their goal teams had to consider things like traction, gearing, weight distribution, clearance and more. Seeing the clever design solutions the teams came up with was awesome. It was clear when talking to teams at the event that they were actively putting the engineering design process into practice.

The fact that kids who build robots internalize this process is one of the reasons I think robotics is such a great activity for youth. The engineering design process is a series of steps that engineers, and others, use to solve problems. By mastering this process, kids gain tons of valuable skills that can help them in the real world.

The engineering design process typically begins with a group defining the problem that needs solving. This step means really taking the problem apart to try to fully understand it. Taking the time to think about the problem at the start helps kids be more deliberate when tackling challenges in their own lives.

After the problem has been identified a group will do background research on the problem by looking at what others have done. This is a great lesson for kids, as they get to see that they can build off of the work of others, instead of re-inventing the wheel.

Next, groups will take the problem and research and use it to define their specifications. Specifications are typically a detailed list of materials, dimensions, requirements, and other information needed to create the final product. Teams will keep these specifications in mind as they move to the next step of the process, brainstorming solutions.

Brainstorming is one of my favorite parts of the engineering design process to watch. In it, teams come up with all sorts of ideas that could potentially solve their problem. Some are creative. Some are functional. Some are both! Getting practice brainstorming helps get kids’ creative juices flowing. It also helps them think about approaching challenges in new ways.

Once all the ideas are on the table, groups select the idea, or combination of ideas, that they think will best meet their specifications and solve the problem. They then move on to developing those ideas through planning and development. In these steps they’ll use what they know to come up with a planned design. This might involve more research, sketches, calculations and note taking. The ultimate goal is making the idea a reality.

Once an idea is fleshed out, teams build a prototype to try to accomplish their goal. In robotics this is where the kids really get hands-on with building and programming. Rarely does a prototype work just right the first time, so teams need to move to the next step in the engineering design process, troubleshooting.

In troubleshooting, teams test their prototypes, identify problems, and then work on coming up with alternate ideas and solutions. In doing this, they are looping back to earlier steps in the engineering design process. They keep working on developing and testing new ideas until they find a good solution. The ability to troubleshoot effectively, and deal with the frustrations that are often involved in this step, builds resilient kids who are more able to deal with life’s challenges.

Ideally teams end up with a product, in this case a robot, capable of achieving their goal or solving their problem. Sometimes constraints like materials or time get in the way of getting to this point. This is another important lesson for kids to learn. Goals might not always be achieved, but they can be proud of the hard work they put in, and the lessons they learned.

I’ve seen robotics build problem solving, teamwork and troubleshooting skills through application of this engineering design process. If you think your kid would benefit from these abilities, come to one of our SLV 4-H Robotics Open House events this fall to learn more about our program. These free events will be held from 5-7 p.m. on Monday, September 25 at the SLV Area Extension Office in Monte Vista, and on Thursday, October 5 at HobbyTown in Alamosa. All Valley youth ages 8 to 18 are invited to participate, and parents are also encouraged to attend with their children. No registration is required, but RSVPs are appreciated. To register or get more information, email [email protected] or call 719-852-7381.

Amy Henschen is the 4-H Youth Development Agent for Colorado State University Extension. To find out more about Extension and the 4-H program visit http://sanluisvalley.colostate.edu or call 719-852-7381. Extension programs are available to all without discrimination.