- Associated Press - Sunday, February 7, 2016

BOX ELDER, S.D. (AP) - Step Five, the moment of truth.

Everything in the instruction manual so far had led up to this crucial point.

On a Thursday afternoon, seven kids were gathered in the Do-It-Yourself STEM lab at the Ellsworth Air Force Base youth center for the second meeting ever of the base’s nascent robotics club, the Rapid City Journal (https://bit.ly/1R3h43L ) reported.

Each of them had painstakingly assembled a heavily bracketed arm out of tiny plastic rods and axle tubes, and the time had come to connect those arms to the engines that would someday power their Lego robots.

“Step Five,” Craig Alberty, their instructor, said, “is complicated.”

Alberty, the Military Program Assistant for 4H in Pennington County, paced at the front of the room, peeking over shoulders to make sure everyone was correctly fitting all the pieces together in their Lego Mindstorm kits.

“Robotics,” Alberty said during a lull in the activity, “is one of those things that seems to be a good fit for the kids here, since a lot of their parents are scientists or engineers.”

It’s a brand new program at Ellsworth’s youth center, inspired in part by a recent Lego robotics competition at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology.

Jake Martin, 10, was the first to successfully parse Step Five’s complicated diagram. Alberty instructed Martin to go through the room and help his fellow roboticists get their connections right.

“It’s not that tricky if you’re really familiar with Legos,” Jake said. “I’ve actually programmed this exact model before.”

Ellsworth’s youth center has partnered with the local 4H to attract youngsters to the much-in-demand disciplines known as STEM, for science, technology, engineering and math, and a new refinement called STEAM, a type of educational programming that seeks to mesh the arts with science.

The robot factory is part of that effort, as today’s children seem as attracted to mechanical figures as generations past were to dinosaurs.

Once they finish the construction of their robots, complete with an array of sensors, the children will learn to program the machines to execute tasks like navigating obstacle courses, or picking up and dropping different items with a selection of articulated arms.

Lenora Amirault, 11, is hoping her finished robot can do practical things.

“Maybe pick stuff up,” she said. “And throw it.”

A stone’s throw away on the other side of the room, Ethan Scott, 10, had other plans for his partially assembled automaton.

“Dance the robot,” he said, nodding vigorously. “Pun intended.”

Eyeing her partially assembled engine, Amirault said, “I haven’t thought of a name for it yet.”

Scott was more, or perhaps less, decisive.

“Billy,” he blurted out. “Or no, wait, I’ve got a better one: Billy the Bot.”

Fran Apland, the youth center’s program director, said if the kids remain interested, she plans on purchasing updated Lego Mindstorm kits and starting a competitive robotics league at Ellsworth.

“I want to work on bringing some out of the box ideas here to the program,” Apland said. “I want us to have programs that kids are interested in.”

One example of the youth center’s push for STEAM is the Science Chef’s group, in which kids at Ellsworth’s youth center can learn how to cook while exploring the distinct chemical makeup of different foods.

“We had one group extract gluten from dough,” Apland said.

The youth director is also trying to get a new archery club off the ground, at which kids will learn the science, mathematics and engineering concepts that surround bows, be it the tensility of the wood they are constructed from or the trajectory and ballistic force of an arrow once it’s launched from the string.

“If we have children who are engaged, they’re going to be more active in their learning,” Apland said.

The robotics club at Ellsworth appeared plenty engaged on Thursday afternoon.

With everyone having weathered the challenges of Step Five, Alberty rubbed his neck and wondered aloud if there was enough time to continue. No one responded, perhaps pretending not to hear as they dug in their trays for the next piece.

Smiling, Alberty threw up his hands. “All right,” he said, “on to Step Six!”

A few of the kids cheered.

___

Information from: Rapid City Journal, https://www.rapidcityjournal.com

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