MACHIAS, Maine — Twenty teams of children from seven Washington County schools were playing with toy robots Saturday morning, toys that — although they may not appear to — were teaching the children to think.
The second annual Washington County 4-H Robotics Expo at the University of Maine at Machias was like a rodeo of science, math, technology and artistic knowledge all taking center ring.
A poster created by the students at Princeton Elementary School reflected the program’s goals: “Technology, teamwork, problem solving and creative thinking.”
The children, who ranged from grades five to eight, had been working for months on robots created using Legos building blocks, motors and computers. They gave their inventions imaginative names such as The Twirlster, The Flipper and Bumper Carz.
Dressed in pink from head to toe, sparkles decorating her sweater, Samantha Cox, 10, of Jonesboro shared the name of her robot: The Terminator. Cox said it was trial and error that brought her to her final design. The treads didn’t work so she switched to wheels, which made it faster.
“I learned while building my robot that you can always have fun,” Cox said.
“The biggest thing they are learning is problem solving,” Stan Sluzenski, assistant coach at Charlotte Elementary said. “There are a ton of different challenges that they have to face and solve — building challenges, programming challenges. They sometimes get frustrated, but that is part of the process, too.”
Sluzenski said the robots may look like toys, but the little computers inside them are very complex. “The children learn to go from going forward and backing up to reacting to light and colors.”
Saturday’s competition was fierce. Each team’s robot had to have at least one light sensor and one touch sensor. The robots were required to follow a line in an all black box and touch a panel to turn on a light.
Awards were to be given in several categories: best design, creativity, rookie all-star, overall presentation, teamwork and team spirit, community service award, and crowd pleaser award. Four workshops also helped teams hone their skills.
Filming all the teams’ progress were Sandra and David Perloff of the Perloff Family Foundation, based in California and Kennebunkport. Their foundation has funded grants over the past five years in conjunction with the Maine Community Foundation to enhance science and mathematics education. They sponsored Saturday’s expo along with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension and 4H.
By focusing on smaller, rural schools as well as day treatment and special education programs, the Perloffs have brought robotics to more than 30 Maine schools and four just across the border at Calais in New Brunswick. Half of the programs are in Washington County. The Perloffs have supplied kits that contain everything needed to build, operate and program a functional robotic vehicle.
“An event like this expo is really very important here,” Sandy Perloff said. “In this county, the schools are quite isolated from each other.”
David Perloff said it’s important to expose the children to the University of Maine. “It is also an opportunity for the university to play a large role in the community,’’ he added.