4-H Robotics Open House aims to generate interest in clubs

Potential future engineers got hands-on experience at Washington County Agricultural Education Center

April 15, 2012|By DON AINES |
  • Armand Martenot, 12, of Hagerstown used a LEGO Mindstorms kit to build his robot Sunday afternoon at the Washington County Agricultural Education Center in Sharpsburg.
By Joe Crocetta, Staff Photographer

At a cybersecurity conference last week, U.S. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett noted that China will graduate seven times as many engineers as U.S. schools will this year and encouraged more students to get involved in the sciences.

Some potential future engineers were at the Washington County Agricultural Education Center on Sunday, getting hands-on experience with rudimentary automatons at the 4-H Robotics Open House.

Liam Von Alt, 9, was trying to get his creation to go forward, but it stubbornly insisted on staying in reverse, sending him back to the laptop computer to reconnect his robot and tweak the program.

“It can move, and has touch sensors we can program, and it has light sensors,” said Skyla Heist, 12, who was also working at the LEGO NXT robotics table.

Cat Kenton, 6, was working with a smaller and simpler alligator robot, successfully instructing it to open and close its jaws.


“4-H Robotics has been around for a while, but not in Washington County,” said Jamie Kenton, a faculty extension assistant for 4-H Youth Development. The aim of the open house was to generate enough interest among children to start robotics clubs here, she said.

4-H has robotics challenge competitions, but for children ages 9 to 14, there is also the FIRST LEGO League challenge, said Bill Von Alt, a computer security consultant, 4-H volunteer and father of Liam.

There were examples of challenge fields — tabletop exercises where FIRST, which stands for For Inspiration and Recognition in Science and Technology, competitors must program a robot to perform a number of tasks within a set period of time, he said.

FIRST is the brainchild of Dean Kamen, an inventor whose best-known creation is the Segway personal transporter, Bill Von Alt said. Kamen created FIRST to encourage enthusiasm for science and technology competitions, he said.

For younger children, the open house featured LEGO WeDo projects like the alligator Cat Kenton was manipulating. Unlike the NXT robots, the alligator was plugged into to the laptop all the time and Cat manipulated the programming through a set of simple instructions.

In addition to doing some basic programming, the kids are also working with motors, pulleys and other simple machines, Von Alt said.

The robotics programs can introduce engineering, critical thinking and programming to a younger audience, Von Alt said.

At another table, children were building race cars with paper clips, buttons, popsicle sticks and other materials.

At another, they were taking small sheets of aluminum foil and shaping them into small boats. The goal was to figure what design would hold the most pennies before sinking.

Annette Martenot, 9, loaded 41 pennies before her early effort sank. Her next held about 60 before sinking in the plastic bowl.

“I make the walls really high so no water can get in,” said Annette, explaining her design.

Jamie Kenton hopes to have 4-H robotics clubs formed by later this year. There will be robotics demonstrations at Discovery Station in Hagerstown on June 2 and 3, and at the Washington County Ag Expo and Fair, July 21 to 28, she said.

For more information about robotics clubs, call Kenton at the Maryland Cooperative Extension’s Washington County office at 301-791-1404 or send an email to

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