Despite a post-Christmas blizzard that caused not just one, but two sessions to be postponed until later in the week, the Becker County Museum's Robotics Mini Camps were a big success, with more than three dozen area kids between ages 4-14 learning how to do such basic tasks as scratch coding, problem solving, and bridge building.
Wait... bridge building? Yes, according to museum director Becky Mitchell, one of the older students' assigned tasks was to design and construct a bridge for their mini robots - known as Ozobots - to travel over, as well as under, using white paper coded with different colored markers as their pathway.
"We used K'nex to build the bridges," Mitchell explained. "Some of the designs are just beautiful."
And if aesthetics and functionality didn't quite meet in some cases - i.e., the bots were unable to cross over or underneath the bridge safely - the kids were sent back to the drawing board to work out what went wrong.
"It's all hands on," Mitchell continued. "Each kid is working with their own Ozobot, but also learning to work together as a team and teaching their robots to cooperate with one another."
In addition, for the first time, the students were able to spend some time working with computer tablets to code their little robots for performing increasingly complex tasks.
"When you use the tablets, you don't need the (coded) paper," said Kevin Mitchell, Becky's husband, who was serving as a volunteer instructor for the mini-camps this past Thursday through Saturday (one session was postponed until Monday due to the weather).
The tablets were paid for through a $4,800 grant from the Detroit Lakes Area Community Foundation, and Becky Mitchell says they will enable the museum to expand their robotics offerings into areas such as LEGO Robotics. .
"Papa Murphy's also gave us the original sponsorship that enabled us to purchase the Ozobots for use at our first robotics camps this past summer," she added, noting that without those sponsorships, they likely wouldn't have been able to purchase as many robots and tablets as they did, which would have limited both the size and scope of their robotics offerings.
"They've been really popular," Mitchell said of the robotics camps. "They've become so popular that we're exploring other partnerships, such as with Becker County 4-H.
"These tablets will enable us to move to the next level with programming the robots," said Mitchell, noting that future camps might focus on specialized tasks, "like a map challenge, or a bridge challenge."
This past week, the museum's robotics offerings also included a "Mini-Me" session for kids between ages 4-6 on Saturday morning. The younger kids, who were accompanied by a parent, grandparent or adult mentor, spent about an hour working on scratch coding with paper and colored markers - and then, because one of the older kids' mini-sessions had been postponed until Saturday morning, were able to spend some time watching and learning from what their older counterparts were doing.
The older camp attendees got to experience working with an older mentor as well, as volunteers from Detroit Lakes High School's QWERTY Robotics team were on hand to aid the museum instructors during all four days of the camps.
"I've been helping them fix their (bridge) designs," said QWERTY Robotics member Lizzie Mohr on Thursday. "They have good ideas, they just need a little help with some things."
Mitchell said that she hopes the museum will be able to expand its robotics offerings to include a broader range of ages and skill levels in future - including some sessions that are targeted toward skill level and experience rather than age groups.
"This is a need in our area, so we will continue to explore how to grow the program so we can offer not only Ozobots (programming), but also other experiences such as (working with) LEGO Robotics, simple machines, and STEM and STEAM challenges."
For more information about future robotics offerings at the museum, please call 218-847-2938, visit the website at www.beckercountyhistory.org, or check the museum's Facebook page for updates as they are added to the schedule.