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Daredevils share their robotics skills with kids

Lydia Saxin displays the program she is using to guide her robot around a series of obstacles. (Photo by Ryley Graham)1 / 4
Daredevils Co-captain Ryan Cauchon helps a program participant guide his robot around the board. (Photo by Ryley Graham)2 / 4
LEGO robots play tug of war while students look on. (Photo submitted)3 / 4
A robot that was created during the week navigates its way up a bridge obstacle on the board that was used throughout the week to learn programming skills. (Photo by Ryley Graham)4 / 4

In an effort to get local kids interested in science and technology, members of the Duluth East Daredevils robotics team volunteered their time to host a LEGO robotics camp.The camp was held Aug. 15-18 at the Heritage Sports Center Boys & Girls Club and attracted a dozen kids who were able to build and program their own robots.

"It was really easy for us to decide to do this camp," said Timothy Velner, Duluth East Robotics advisor. "Other camps that we do raise money for the team, but this camp is our gift to the community."

This year will mark the 10th anniversary of the Duluth East Daredevils, which began as the only team in its region but is now part of 123 teams that compete in the regional tournament each March. Despite the rapid growth of robotics, the Daredevils have been able to maintain a strong presence on the global stage and have even placed second in the world championships.

"In the 10 years we've been here, the growth has been amazing, I mean I'm floored," Velner said. "We wanted another team to compete with in the area and now we have eight right here."

Aside from high school teams, many local elementary schools have begun to implement robotics programs as well, creating an infrastructure similar to sports teams, where kids can start to learn the skills at a younger age. Although robotics is growing in popularity, the Daredevils receive no district funding. After almost shutting down twice due to lack of funds, the team has developed a business plan to keep their program running.

"We run two LEGO robotics camps at East every year. We've done that for four years and it took us that long to get to the place we are at now," Velner said. "Those camps cost money to participate, but that money allows us to donate camps like the one we did this week."

The Daredevils decided to host the free camp to give back to the community after all of the support they have received. The team members volunteered their time and the Northland Foundation donated $7,000 worth of equipment to create the robots. The basic goal of the camp was to build a robot that could navigate its way around two obstacle courses that the Daredevils made. Each kid learned about the mechanical and programming aspects of robotics and how to identify which part was not working properly when problems occurred.

"For a while the wheels on my robot were going at different speeds because one side was straight and had less power," said Lydia Saxin, a program participant. "So then I moved one leg back to make a triangle again."

After the robots are structured properly, the kids work on programming them using computers. The boards that the Daredevils provided contained black and red lines over a white surface. Using light sensors on the bottom of the robots, the camp participants were able to program their robots to follow the black lines, stop on the red and navigate around obstacles such as a lake and a bridge made of metal.

Programming is a process of trial and error. Velner says that the most important thing is to analyze mistakes made on the board, then figure out how to correct them in the program.

"We teach them about accuracy and precision. Accuracy is doing the right thing and precision is can you repeat it," Velner said. "A precise mistake tells you something about the robot."

Completing all of the tasks on one board requires the robots to have multiple functions, something that the kids have not yet had enough time to learn to do. In solving one problem, another is often created and the Daredevils are hoping to create a more sustainable program so that the participants are able to achieve that skill level. Velner says that the future of computer science lies with machines that are able to do more than one thing, and that starting to learn the skills at a young age can be very valuable.

"Coding is a big deal in the 21st century, it's one of the best things a kid can learn," Velner said. "I look at what these kids can do and it's very in line with what the industry wants."

The Denfeld Nation Automation (DNA) team also held a two-week LEGO Robotics Camp for the children in the Duluth area. The team of  FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) students mentored young students by helping them build a robot that has to complete multiple tasks. At the end of the two weeks, the LEGO Camp students modified their robots to compete with each other in a “sumo bot” match where they try to push the other robots out of a circular arena. On the last day of camp, DNA students demonstrated their robots from previous years to show how the young students may apply recently learned skills later in their lives.