Rough terrain. Unsurpassable obstacles. Navigating the rocky unknown with little help from home. These are the challenges space robots face as they explore distant worlds and the engineering problems tackled by the teams that design the rovers. Grade school might be a little early for NASA recruiting, but it’s a great time to start playing with the endless possibilities of robotics! At AstroCamp, kids create LEGO rovers to surmount all kinds of space-like challenges. The rovers must handle uneven ground, avoid unclimbable walls and murderous drop-offs, and collect samples to bring back to home base. It’s not just a building challenge, either! Students program their robots to get the job done with minimal human interference.
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In advanced classes, pairs of young engineers invent & build robots from scratch. Each step of the process requires teamwork, creativity, and plenty of persistence. Campers quickly discover that programming is rarely a one-shot deal. They learn that the best line-following robots take their time, and that adding a sensor or claw often means tweaking programs to account for the extra weight. Like grown-up rocket scientists, they must revise and re-test their design to develop it into a working system.
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In space, the tactical difficulties of pushing the final frontier ever outward have led to some truly awesome machines. Curiosity was lowered to the Martian surface from a hovering sky-crane– and that’s after riding the thin local atmosphere to a screaming halt with the help of a giant supersonic parachute. Curiosity’s predecessor, Spirit, crashed into the red planet amidst a cluster of airbags, coming safely to rest after a series of bounces up to 5 stories tall. Philae, the lander Rosetta dropped onto a comet last year, wields harpoons inside its washing-machine-sized body, designed to help anchor the lander in a spot where its solar panels could charge. Unfortunately, the harpoons didn’t deploy on impact, but what an idea! Space inspires incredible robotic inventions.
At the middle and high school level, robotics lays the foundation for a lifetime of problem-solving on Earth and beyond. Students learn that failure provides valuable insights. They experience trial and error as necessary steps in the innovation process. They also gain practical knowledge as they’re exposed to the basics of design and programming, making them less likely to be intimidated by future engineering opportunities.
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