NU engineers build robotic
relationships with area kids © Dec. 18, 2007 Norwich University Office of Communications

Photo of Norwich and local school students competing in the second annual IEEE Robotics Club annual Robotic Obstacle Course competition.

photo by Jay Ericson Norwich and local school students competing in the IEEE Robotics Club’s second annual Robot Obstacle Course competition.

Along with a stiff regimen of electrical, computer and mechanical engineering work this semester, a handful of Norwich engineering students spent time building something not normally found in a typical course syllabus: Relationships with youngsters.

On Wednesday, Dec. 12, members of the University’s Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Robotics Club hosted a gaggle of fourth- through eighth-grade students for the second annual Robot Obstacle Course competition. Held in Juckett Hall, the event pitted teams of youngsters representing the Central Vermont Catholic Schools against one another while Norwich students advised the competitors on robotic programming strategies.

“They love coming here,” said Pamela Nadeau, a fifth- through eighth-grade teacher from the St. Monica’s campus who accompanied the young robotics programmers to Norwich last week. “It’s so cool for them to visit Norwich and be able to work with the Norwich kids. It’s nice for them to have a goal…and coming down here for this is a great thing for them to work towards.”

And work they did. Each of the 12 youngsters participated in the building, programming and subsequent running of some remarkably high-tech robots. Constructed of Legos and onboard computer systems called NXTs, the teapot-sized robots raced across a roughly 10-foot long obstacle course that required the machines to traverse bridges, plow through Lego rubble, topple and catch treasure pots from a tower, and finally, maneuver their way through a series of turns and straight-aways. And all that was after the kids spent time working at computers on the programming that was subsequently uploaded to the robots’ NXTs.

I think it’s a great event. They’re having fun and learning, which is something that I don’t think happens very often.

~ John Walthour, ’08

“They built them, they programmed them and they’re testing them, so whatever problems they’re facing they’re dealing with,” Nadeau said. “I see them problem solving, and they’re doing it enthusiastically.”

Nine-year-old Aislynn Kelly said that while she thinks she’d like to be a paleontologist when she grows up as opposed to an engineer, robots were definitely enticing enough for her take part in this year’s event. Along with teammates Alec Nadeau, 13, and Joe Millette, 11, Kelly worked in the minutes leading up to the competition to keep ”Mr. T“ from turning a bit too far to the right before approaching the bridge.

“We’re looking pretty good,” Kelly said while watching Nadeau key in some minor adjustments to Mr. T’s instructions. “We just have to keep it from hitting the wall when it goes over the bridge.

“When it hits the wall, it goes like this,” she said, erupting into a full-body jitter, her teeth chattering out the high-pitched whine the robot’s tiny motor makes when stressed.

Professor of electrical engineering and faculty advisor to the IEEE Robotics Club Ronald Lessard said the event was beneficial to everyone involved. The young kids, he said, get real-world experience in robotics and programming. The Norwich students, he said, get the same and more.

“It’s a real benefit to the Norwich students because, as any faculty member here on campus will tell you, by teaching others you learn yourself,” Lessard said. “And it also fits in very nicely with the leadership aspect of Norwich.”

Senior computer engineering major John Walthour embodies the leadership aspect that Lessard spoke of. As the co-founder of the IEEE Robotics Club, the Grafton, N.H., native said the robotics competition provides the younger generation with exposure to a field that is in need of more people—engineering. Moreover, he noted that having the kids down to the Northfield campus lets them see what Norwich has to offer, an investment that could pay off big for the University when the young programmers are looking at higher education opportunities.

But while these points should be recognized, Walthour is quick to say the event is not about exposure to field of engineering or Norwich. And more importantly, he said, it’s not about competition.

“I think it’s a great event,” Walthour said while watching the kids hoot and holler as their robots navigated the course. “They’re having fun and learning, which is something that I don’t think happens very often.”