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Lego robots help teach kids about engineering, math

SALT LAKE CITY — Gears whirred as the Lego robot car raced towards the wall, its impact looming imminent in the eyes of Keira Rico.

Just before the moment of impact the car stopped and turned around, and what seemed like an unstoppable force avoided the immovable object. An object sensor mounted on the top of the Lego car sent information to the computer controlling its engine and steering. As the car closed in on the obstructions, the sensor sent the message and the car rotated, as designed.

Keira, 13, nodded with relief as the Lego contraption worked as planned. She and two of her classmates from the American Preparatory Academy had come in with a group of a dozen boys and girls from Jackson Elementary School, and had assembled their own Lego robotics car. She and the other students were invited to a Monday learning camp experience with Zaniac, a kid's science and technology program.

"It sees the contact with the wall and we programmed it," Keira said, as her team's robot car spun away from another wall.

The team of three girls had worked beforehand with a member of Zaniac's creative teaching team to plan the rotation and the response distance that the car would react to when objects appeared before it. Through a series of trial and error, they got the response distance down, allowing their car to manuever as needed.

Meanwhile the boys' team was still working out some of the flaws in their own trial and error, adjusting the wheels to lift the car further off the ground to allow it to turn without dragging over the carpet.

The students came out to take part in the engineering experience with Zaniac. The students had the chance to commemorate National Engineering Day and get excited about the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math.

"What we are teaching today helps teach kids the way that you communicate between a basic robot and computer software," Dashiell Wolf, the regional manager for Zaniac, said.

He said Zaniac is a kids camp and supplemental education firm focused on STEM subjects.

"The big thing for us at Zaniac, first is experiential learning and second is peer-based learning," said Zane Brandt, the franchise development manager for Zaniac.

Brandt stressed the importance of hands-on experience for developing excitement and engagement with STEM learning.

"We try to give kids that opportunity, not teach in a lecture-based environment where we stand at the front of the class," he said. "Put something in their hands that may be too advanced for them and let them learn as they play."

Peer-based learning is also important, he said, as sometimes children can speak in more relatable terms.

"There are some times that a 9-year old kid is going to be able to teach his 9-year old buddy a concept he understands in a better way than I will, just because they have that peer connection," Brandt said.

Across the room from the robotics trials, the rest of the students were busy studying out their engineering skills in the virtual world.

Paloma Velazquez, another student from the American Preparatory Academy, soared over the digital landscape of a Minecraft game, gathering resources and stacking them around a house.

"All I am trying to do is make a house, with I do not know how many levels," Paloma, 10, said.

For many of the school children the time spent at the computer felt like play, but Brandt said there was a subtle learning experience.

"The cool thing with Minecraft is that a lot of the principles that are followed with Minecraft are similar to principles that are followed in real life. The even better part is that kids are already in love with Minecraft," he said.

He noted that a number of subjects could be taught with Minecraft lessons.

Brandt said players could be placed in different digital environments to understand the differences between biomes. Their architecture skills can also be put to the true test with game modifications that add realistic physics and stresses on buildings.

"If you build a bridge that is just slapped together, it is going to fall over," he said.

Zaniac could teach an architecture course through the computer game, Brandt said.

Spectrum Engineers worked with Zaniac to organize the event and sponsored the students to come and try some of the learning opportunities.

"Spectrum Engineers wanted to inspire the next generation of engineers to get excited about engineering," said Jade Teran, a public relations manager for the company.

Zaniac offers a number of after-school programs that teach design, programming and robotics for children from kindergarten through eighth grade.