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University of Utah robotics camp a smash hit with kids

SALT LAKE CITY — A group of middle school kids cluster around two robots whizzing toward each other. The goal of the game of "sumo" is to push the opponent's robot out of bounds.

The kids set up their bots and let them charge toward each other.

Robot parts fly in different directions as they collide. Through the struggle of grinding electric motors and spinning wheels, one robot prevails. The victors rejoice: "We won, yeah!"

On its face, the University of Utah's annual robotics camp seems like play, but organizers say the kids learn important lessons in not only building robots and programming, but solving problems and learning from mistakes.

"Robotics is a nice blend of computer science and mechanical engineering," said David Johnson, a research associate at the U.'s computer science department. Johnson, who helps coordinate GREAT (Graphics &and Robotic Exploration with Amazing Technology), said that while computer and robotics camps have been running at the U. for a while, GREAT was started four years ago and has grown into an amazing success.

"We started four years ago with just 35 middle school students. We now have over 300 students," Johnson said.

The camp has also gained the support of Novell, Microsoft, NVIDIA and the U.S. Air Force, which provide financial help as well as equipment.

Eleven-year-old Michael Cotner is not thinking about a tech career. He's thinking about how he can make his "sumo gerbil" robot better, pointing out that he built the robot with an arm to flip his opponents over. But it needs tweaking.

"Robots are probably the hardest part," said 15-year-old Travis White. "My robot died," he added, while showing the pieces he was using to rebuild his bot.

There are three separate two-week camps held throughout the summer: one each for elementary level, middle school and high school. Each focuses on different skills, starting with simple computer software and leading to more advanced robot building and programming. The camps teach kids linear logic and how to deal with failure, picking up and moving forward. "In the real world, sometimes things don't turn out the way you expect," Johnson said.

Judith Maughan, education programs officer for Hill Air Force Base, said the need for engineers and programmers in the Air Force is high. "If we hired in the next few years everybody that was graduating from the U., Utah Valley University, Utah State and Brigham Young University, we wouldn't have enough engineers and scientists to fill the need at Hill Air Force Base," she said.

As an investment in the future, Maughan said the Air Force provides scholarships to 81 Wasatch Front students to attend GREAT. NVIDIA provides scholarships specifically to female students.

Jim Wall, director of program management at Microsoft, says his experience attending summer camp at the U. many years ago helped put him where he is today. "I attended the University of Utah's summer computing institute in 1990 before my senior year in high school," he said.

"I've always been a geek at heart. The camp was the highlight of my summer. It sealed the deal for me to major in computer science at the U.," Wall said.

This year's summer camp is coming to a close, but those interested in registering for next year can do so in March.

Johnson said half of the benefit of the camps is showing students what universities are all about. "Some kids are not brought up to even think of college, but it can put them on a path to having a good job."