By Sue Botos
Most kids would love to have a robot to help them with their homework, clean their room or to do other chores. While the mechanical movers crafted by students during the Rocky River Public Library’s Lego Mindstorm Robotics workshop didn’t quite have these capabilities, they could “talk” and recognize some basic commands as well as provide a few hours of fun.
Teens’ librarian Megan Alabaughs said that this was the third or fourth time the workshop has been offered, and now has two parts. “The first day we spent building the robots. Everyone builds the same one as a basic building block, then after that, they can adapt it to do different things,” explained Alabaughs, adding that it took the entire hour and a half of the previous day’s session for the students to construct their droids.
Lego Mindstorms is a series of computer software and hardware for the creation of small, customizable and programmable robots, which include modular sensors, motors and components from the Lego Technics line.
The brain of the Mindstorms robot is the NXT, the computer-controlled Lego brick that makes the robot come to life. Alabaughs explained that there are three ports for attaching motors and four for sensors. A USB cable connects to the ports and downloads programs from a computer to the NXT.
“Work with them on the floor. If you don’t put them on the floor before you press go, you’re done,” she warned the group of middle school students as their droids began to come to life in the library’s computer learning lab. First-time Mindstorms attendee Ben Wing, an eighth-grader at Rocky River Middle School, created the most complex-looking robot, and planned to attach arms to propel a ball.
“We have varying levels of success. Some kids breeze right through it, but we’re pretty happy if we can get them (the robots) to move forward and backward,” Alabaughs noted. She added that there are YouTube videos that show the NXT doing such complicated maneuvers as solving a Rubik’s Cube.
It was easy for the students to think that their robots had a mind of their own, but Alabaughs reminded them that these were machines. “It doesn’t think, it doesn’t feel. It just does what you tell it to do,” she stated.
Using the “Common Palette” selection on the computer, the students could choose from a variety of actions and sounds that could be downloaded into their robot. Seventh-grader Marybeth Curtis discovered a sound that mimicked a foghorn, much to the amusement of her fellow programmers. “I really love building with Legos, and I thought I could make my Legos do something,” she explained.
Jasmine Sims, an eighth-grader and Mindstorms veteran, successfully programmed her robot to travel in a square. “I’ve done this before and it was fun the first time,” she said of her decision to return.
Aside from the “servo motor” that makes them move, droids are also outfitted with a sensor for color, which can detect six different shades and read their intensities, touch, light and sound. However, Alabaughs explained that the light and color functions did not work well in the computer lab due to the overhead lighting.
Although the students were having fun with their creations, the robots’ ability to do school work was still elusive. Seventh-grader Logan Johns was quick to note that this was a characteristic he would definitely want for his droid, “If I could do that, I would.”