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Museum hosts first-ever robotics camp

Participants in this week's Robotics Camp at the Becker County Museum stand and watch a 3-D printing demonstration as volunteer instructor Kevin Mitchell, center, explains how it works. (Vicki Gerdes / Tribune)1 / 8
Volunteer instructor Kevin Mitchell, at left, helps a student at the Becker County Museum Robotics Camp to figure out a problem with his Tinkercad design. (Vicki Gerdes / Tribune)2 / 8
Students in the 11-14 age group at the museum's robotics camp had some fun with Scratch coding on their laptops Tuesday morning. (Vicki Gerdes / Tribune)3 / 8
Two robotics camp participants watch closely as their Ozobots "fight it out" to try and get past each other on their opposing pathways. (Vicki Gerdes / Tribune) 4 / 8
The design of 'Old Three Legs' that the 3-D printer was using to complete the wolf figurine could be seen in the view screen outside the printer box. (Vicki Gerdes / Tribune)5 / 8
The 3-D printer at the Becker County Museum Robotics Camp had just started working on the base for a model of 'Old Three Legs' on Tuesday morning. The wolf figurine was expected to take roughly 26 hours to complete. (Vicki Gerdes / Tribune)6 / 8
Two robotics camp participants have some fun with their Ozobots during Tuesday's camp session at the Becker County Museum. (Vicki Gerdes / Tribune)7 / 8
Robotics camp participants Grace Glass and COle Rotter watch carefully to see if they did the line coding for their Ozobots correctly during Tuesday morning's camp session at the Becker County Museum. (Vicki Gerdes / Tribune)8 / 8

Scratch coding, computer aided design, 3-D printing, robot programming... not the usual type of activities that one might associate with a summer day camp at the Becker County Museum.

But that's just what the 40 kids between ages 7-14 that are taking part in the museum's first-every Robotics Camp are learning how to do this week.

"They're all learning how to do some simple Scratch coding and program these tiny robots, called Ozobots, to perform basic tasks," says the museum's executive director, Becky Mitchell.

Her husband, Kevin Mitchell, who volunteered as a camp instructor at the museum this week, has some past experience with robotics and 3-D printing, but says that the camp has been something of a learning experience for him as well.

"I decided to do a 3-D print demonstration using Old Three Legs," he said, referring to the legendary three-legged wolf on display in the museum's wildlife section, which has been the subject of some of the county's more well-known bits of folklore.

In order to do that, however, he first had to program the wolf's design into the printer — which became a process of "trial and error," he added.

"This is Three Legs 2.0," he added, referring to the design that was going through the 3-D printing process on Tuesday morning. "The first one didn't turn out so well."

In fact, the first design toppled over about midway through the printing process, because the wolf's three-legged stance wasn't stable enough to stay put without some sort of base underneath.

Though the day camp students were tasked with designing their own 3-D images using Tinkercad, a simple 3-D computer-aided design (CAD) program, the process of 3D printing is so slow that they simply didn't have enough time to print them all during the 4-day camp, which ended Thursday.

"They can make their shapes on one of the computers and save them, to be printed later (on another 3-D printer)," Kevin Mitchell said.

At another station in the museum's lower level, another group of kids was learning how to program the Ozobots, using simple pens and paper.

"The Ozobots are programmed with codes that are simple lines drawn on a piece of paper, in different colors," explained Becky Mitchell. "The different colors and line sequences are the Ozobot's language, that tells them what to do."

What some of the students discovered during the coding process was that when the Ozobots were programmed to traverse the same path from different directions, they would eventually run into each other, and "fight" to proceed past the Ozobot that got in their way.

Part of the process also involves problem solving, she added.

"If they code something wrong, and the robot doesn't do what it's supposed to, then they have to figure out how to fix it," she said.

Later on in the week, the camp was visited by some guest speakers from BTD Manufacturing and TEAM Industries, two local businesses that use computer coding and robotics as part of their manufacturing process.

Those who want to continue developing their robotics skills now that this summer camp is over will have at least one more opportunity to do so this winter: The museum is hosting a mini-robotics camp during the holiday week between Christmas and New Year's Day, when school is not in session.

"We'll be doing both beginner and intermediate sessions," said Becky Mitchell. "The camp will run from Dec. 26-28, with sessions for kids ages 7-10 from 9-11 a.m., and kids ages 11-14 from 1-3 p.m. Then on Saturday, Dec. 29, we'll have another mini-robotics camp for kids ages 4-6 and their parents, from 10 a.m. to noon."

All three age groups will be working with Ozobots, which have the capacity for more complicated programming as kids become more adept at coding.

"The cost will be $45 per person for the three-day camp, or $15 per person for the one-day camp," she added. "But space will be limited to just 20 kids for each session (due to the number of Ozobots the museum has available), so sign up early!"

September at the museum

Another upcoming activity is the museum's next Brown Bag Lunch presentation, set to take place at noon on Wednesday, Sept. 12 — but unlike previous series installments, this one will not be held at the museum.

"We will hold this Brown Bag Lunch at the Historic Holmes Theatre," said Becky Mitchell. "The presentation will be on the history of the Holmes Theatre, and it will be followed by a behind-the-scenes tour of the theater itself."

Next up on the calendar is National Museum Day on Saturday, Sept. 22.

"Admission to the museum is free that day, with a ticket that you can find online at the Smithsonian Magazine website (," Mitchell said.

That morning, from 10 a.m. to noon, families will also be invited to participate in a special activity: Creating their own family tree out of string art.

Museum staff will also be on site at the Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge during its Fall Festival on Saturday, Sept. 29, presenting information about the history of the logging industry in Becker County.

To sign up for the mini-robotics camp in December, or learn more about any of the upcoming activities at the museum, please call 218-847-2938 or visit the website at Updates about future activities are also available on the museum's Facebook page.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 18-plus years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Detroit Lakes School Board. 

(218) 844-1454