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LEGOs become much more than a toy

PARK HILLS – The din of happy voices filled the Exhibit Hall at the St. Francois County Fairgrounds as approximately 300 youth and adults put together LEGO robots, showed off their original LEGO models and competed in a contest for LEGO robots. The event was held May 12.

Members of 4-H groups sold pizza and soda inside the exhibit hall while groups of children and adults gathered around large tables loaded with LEGO pieces and created unique models. At the other end of the hall, teams lifted homemade race tracks to show off the skills of their LEGO robots. Nearby, Lynna Lawson, statewide youth specialist, helped youth work together to build a weight-bearing structure from marshmallows.

Everyone was focused on learning and having fun at the 2012 Robot Invitational and LEGO Education Showcase Event. The event was sponsored by St. Francois County 4-H, Washington County 4-H and Parkland Science Initiatives. The event showcased 4-H robotics programs currently provided in the area as well as high school robotics teams.

“I think we had a great turnout,” said Ann Boes, an organizer of the event.

Ethan Alexander, 12, of Smithville, Ill., created Rogawt, “a remote operated grabber arm with traps.” Ethan designed Rogawt on his own. Using a remote control, Ethan demonstrated how the robot can move around, pick up a cube and put it in a clear container.

“It took me a week to build,” Ethan said.

In one section of the hall, participants learned how to use Scratch – a computer programming language developed by the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab.

Outside, participants learned about a GPS unit used by Flieg’s Equipment of Farmington and took turns driving a remote guided Jeep, called an autonomous urban vehicle. The vehicle, which has laser sensors on the front so it can avoid hitting objects, operates with a joy stick.

“It’s used as a development tool so we can test hardware and software,” said Michael Arnold, a test engineer for Boeing. “A team of 60 volunteers worked on it on their own time. We did this for fun.”

While youth tried their hand at driving with the remote, Boeing employee John Marble sat in the driver’s seat, ready to intervene if needed for safety reasons.

“Not only was it exciting for the kids to drive the jeep around the field using a joystick, they met several of the Boeing engineers who worked on the vehicle and learned about the challenges of designing and building the car of the future,” Boes said.

Youth left the car with grins and cries of “That was cool!” as they ran back to family and friends.

“It was pretty cool getting to turn and navigate a car, said Bryce Palmer, 11.

His brother, Jayce Palmer, 7, also took a turn.

“There’s a remote control,” Jayce explained. “Back was the brake, and there’s left and right. You just let it go to go forward.”

Several teams participated in the Robot Invitational, which was judged by Jim Rosenkoetter, retired engineer for AT&T and a mentor for Iron Scorpions Robotics, and John Nichols, a former member of the Iron Scorpions, now a student at University of Missouri in Columbia and a mentor for the Iron Scorpions.

Participants each received a string backpack, USB drive, certificate of participation and medal. Additional cash awards went to the top three teams in each division.

Winners were as follows.

Robot Performance RoboPet Junior Division (ages 8 – 10): Loco Robot – Aaron Boes and Trent Earhart, first place; Squirrel Catchers –  Lee Bess and Dylan Gilliland, second place $25.

Robot Performance RoboPet Intermediate Division (ages 11 – 13):  Mantraquad – Jonathan Hotop, Dylan Moran, Ethan Moran, Gabriel Ritch, first place; Kyle Johnson and Alex Zeeb, second place; Joshua Koenig, Evan Fetterhoff, third place.

Team Interview and Technical Judging Junior Division:  Squirrel Catcher – Dylan Gilliland and Lee Bess, first place; Loco Robot – Trent Earhart and Aaron Boes, second place.

Team Interview and Technical Judging Intermediate Division: Seth Mosier and Roland Knight, first; Kyle Johnson and Alex Zeeb, second; Crazy Caterpillar – Neil Boes and Wyatt Gann, and Mantraquad – Ethan Moran, Jonathan Hotop, Dylan Moran, Gabriel Ritch, tied for third.

Scratch Programming Competition Junior Division: Phillip Kennedy.

Scratch Programming Competition Intermediate Division: Jonathan Hotop, first; Noel Kennedy, second.

Scratch Programming Competition Senior Division (ages 14 and older): Jonathan Kennedy, first place.

Paula Barr is a reporter for the Daily Journal and can be reached at 573-431-2010, ext. 172 or at

Youth who are interested in robotics are invited to attend a summer camp at Mineral Area College sponsored by Parkland Science Initiatives, Iron Scorpion Robotics and University of Missouri Extension.

The sponsors will offer three camps this summer at the college. There are only 10 slots available for each camp. Registration ends June 9.

Introduction to Robotics using the LEGO Mindstorms NXT will run from 8 a.m. to noon July 9 – 13 for students in grades 4 through 7 who have no programming experience. The cost for 4-H members is $100 and $125 for nonmembers.

Scratch Programming will be held from 8 a.m. to noon July 9 – 13 for youth in grades 3 through 7. Cost for 4-H members is $40 and is $50 for nonmembers.

Intermediate Robotics using LEGO Mindstorms NXT will be held 8 a.m. to noon July 16 – 20 for youth in grades 4 through 7 who have previous programming experience. Cost for 4-H members is $100, and $125 for nonmembers, $125.

To register or more information, contact Ann Boes at

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