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Middle School Students Program Robots, Learn About Engineering at U.Va. Camp

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July 17, 2009 — Twenty-one middle school students are participating in a hands-on Systems Robots Design Camp this week at the University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Led by assistant professor Reid Bailey, the camp has been run for three years by the Department of Systems and Information Engineering. Its aim is to expose students to math, science and engineering and spark an interest in further study.

"The decisions they make now, about which courses they take in middle school, affect how easy it is to pursue a science, engineering or math major in college," Bailey said.

The students start by learning about basic Lego robotics from Bailey and three students from the School of Engineering and Applied Science who serve as counselors. The campers then move on to "robot art," by designing robots to drag pens or markers and "draw," ultimately putting all of the robots together to create a big mural.

Other challenges include navigating robots through a maze as fast as possible and integrating Wii controllers into designs so the robots can race and play soccer.

"I've learned how to program robots and put them together with Legos, which I really didn't know how to do before," camper Larry Foster said.

In addition to gaining programming and systems engineering skills, the students learn to articulate their knowledge.

"After camp, they're much more confident in explaining what an engineer does," Bailey said.

Today, the last day of camp, parents are invited to see what the students have learned and to hear from U.Va. engineering and admission representatives.

"We really try to reach out to kids who otherwise might not have a lot of exposure to engineering," Bailey said. Corporate sponsors Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman funded scholarships for about half of the campers.

— By Laura Hoffman

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