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Teens go robotic at ETSU tech camp

Brandon Paykamian • Jul 27, 2017 at 8:33 AM

On Wednesday, students from middle and high schools across the region got a chance to learn more about robots.

For the past week, they have been coding and building their own robots with the guidance of the East Tennessee State University Department of Computing. During their series of summer coding and tech camps, which was promoted in partnership with the Niswonger Foundation, the department has worked to teach the students more about programming 3D-printed robots.

According to Mathew Desjardins, the camp director for the department of computing, many of these students have already learned some basic programming over the past week. Interestingly, the robots they’ve been working on can move on their own when they are carefully and correctly programmed.

“This can run on it’s own,” Desjardins said. “It has a lot of different sensor networks.”

As he demonstrated how the robots work, Desjardins said one of the biggest hurdles for the students is learning the computing. In a sense, Desjardins said these students will have to learn how to program “logic” into these robots in order for the sensors to work properly.

And that takes a lot of know-how.

“I think the programming will be the most tedious portion of it,” he said. “They’ll have to have it to where it can sense a wall to know which direction to go. That takes some logic. The reason that's so tedious is because people are not familiar with it. It’s just something you don’t see everyday.”

Desjardin said 3D printing in particular has come a long way in the last few years, and he believes that students will be able to make an entire robot out of a 3D printer in the future. But for this project, all of the “classic” pieces and plastic components of the robots’ bodies were made by a 3D printer, according to Desjardins.

“The only thing that wasn’t produced by the 3D printer was the electronic parts, the motor and the wheels,” Desjardins said. “There are printers that have multiple inputs, so I could see this eventually being able to print a 3D robot that works.”

As the students continue to learn more about how to build these robots and do the coding, Jarred Light, one of the coordinators of the camp, said students will finally put their entire robot together on Friday.

“They are in teams of two, so one is making the remote, and one is going to program the robot,” he said. “So they’re building two different things, but they’re working together.”

Desjardins said the students at the camp, who are from grades 7-12, have already learned a lot about how to program and build these robots over the past few days, and he sees a lot of potential in these students.

As technology continues to be more and more a part of our everyday lives, he said these programming skills are important. 

“By the time they’re in college and then go out into the workforce, I think they’re going to have some skills that everyone should have,” Desjardins said. “There’s such a need for this. There are jobs opening up all the time looking for people who understand code. We try to show students that they don’t have to wait for college.”

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