Building better 'bots

(It's all about technology)

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Warren Atkison, center left, and Erik Hines, right, both 11, watch their Lego Mindstorm robot navigate an obstacle course on Friday at the Digital Innovators Generating New Information Technologies program at the University of Idaho Coeur d'Alene campus. The Dign'IT program focuses on teaching students practical skills in software development, such as understanding computer programing and Java.

COEUR d'ALENE - The Possibly Explosive Energy Turtles team may have had a robot that went rogue, but they still had fun building it.

"It kind of went all wacko," said Dom Zepeda, 13, of Coeur d'Alene. "We don't know all the reasons it went wacko, but we only had today to do it."

"It just kind of started spinning in circles," said Dom's teammate, Sarah Janzen, 17, of Coeur d'Alene.

Dom and Sarah were among more than 20 youths, age 12 and older, who participated in the five-day, technology-based Dig'nIT Java camp which took place in the University of Idaho-Coeur d'Alene complex in Harbor Center. The Dig'nIT (Digital Innovation Generating New Information Technology) camp included workshops about Java programming, building and programming LegoNXT robots, guest speakers, coding and more.

The camp culminated Friday afternoon as several three-person teams placed their 'bots within an obstacle course outlined with metal tape to prove who had the best 'bot. Sarah explained how the sensors on the robots could tell the difference between the light value of the floor and the metal tape.

"When it detects a certain light value, it's given a separate command to turn and go a different direction," she said. "It also has ultrasonic sensors and they are coordinated, but I think I hooked them up wrong."

Once the small, wheeled 'bots were in the course, they had three minutes to move within the borders and move balls out of the course while dodging white boxes. Cries of amusement could be heard throughout the room as some robots pivoted just before snagging a ball or wandering out of the course altogether, as if they had minds of their own.

Teams were judged on robot actions and characteristics, including how many balls were moved, if any boxes were hit, if the 'bot remained within the course, style and time.

"What I most want to teach them is that they can just go out and do it," said U of I computer science professor Terry Soule of Moscow, who facilitated the camp with the assistance of a few high school Dig'nIT interns. "If they want to learn to program or if they want to play with LEGOs, you can do that."

He said camps such as Dig'nIT are great places for young minds to start exploring science and technologies, but he encourages them to do their own research and not limit themselves. If they're interested, he said, they should "just do it."

Soule said this kind of program integrates creativity with logical thinking, two things that don't usually go together. Marcee Hartzell of Coeur d'Alene, who runs the summer camp programs for U of I-Coeur d'Alene, said she is pleased to help inspire youths to be interested in science and technology.

"Anything we can do to get the kids excited about technology, the new direction it's going, get kids in the door, also expose them to the university," she said. "It's really cool."

The cost of the camp was $150 per participant. It was the first year for the Java camp in Coeur d'Alene and Hartzell said she hopes it will return next year. It was sponsored by a donation from iShoutout, a local mobile app business. The Java camp was one of several youth summer camps offered through U of I-Coeur d'Alene.

"What can we do to get the kids in our building, excited about different forms of technology?" she asked. "Not just computer science and coding, but science in general. How to use a microscope, or how to build an app or how to use Google Maps ... it's all about technology."

A Lego Mindstorm robot designed by students in the University of Idaho Digital Innovators Generating New Information Technologies finds its way around an obstacle course on Friday at the University of Idaho Coeur d'Alene campus. The students had a goal of programing a robot to navigate itself inside of a ring of metal tape while dodging shoe boxes and knocking colored balls out of the tape ring's perimeter.

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