Students find success in young robotics program

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Monona Robotics members Max Havlicek (left) and Karter Decker recently took second place for best creative programming in the Iowa Tech Hub Hyper Stream Competition. (Photos by Audrey Posten)

Robots are created using Legos and Lego extensions, Max said. Each robot has a “brain” and is controlled by a remote control. “The brain holds the programming, which you download from a computer,” he explained.

Max and Karter described robotics as a fun, educational and rewarding experience.

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor

Local students are finding success with the Monona Robotics program, created in 2014 through the Clayton County ISU Extension Office. Middle schoolers Max Havlicek and Karter Decker recently earned second place for best creative programming in the Iowa Tech Hub Hyper Stream Competition.

The state competition was virtual, explained coordinator Shannon Durbin, so participants created and submitted videos that showed their robots completing a challenge. Participants were then given placings in categories like best name, best build, or in Max’s and Karter’s case, best creative programming. Max and Karter’s robot, named “The Little Train That Could,” competed in the bull challenge, and had to hit seven cups—or bulls—out of a square area in two minutes.

The robots are created using Legos and Lego extensions, Max said. Each robot has a “brain” and is controlled by a remote control.

“The brain holds the programming, which you download from a computer,” Max explained.

“You want to get the remote control to work with the robot,” Karter added.

Max said robotics involves a lot of trial and error, with the robot usually created over a two-week span.

“Building it doesn’t take that long—probably a day,” Karter noted. “Programming it just right is what takes time.”

The Monona Robotics program is open to MFL MarMac students in grades two through eight. Around a handful of kids participated this year, Shannon said. Participants work in pairs and complete several projects, mostly during the school year. Max and Karter are currently working on a robot for the Clayton County Fair.

More participants are always welcome.

“I really wanted to get it going,” said Pam Havlicek, Max’s mom. “Then, Shannon got hired and made it work. It gives them more opportunity in a small community.”

Pam said Max has completed Lego kits since he was a younger kid.

“This is a whole next step from building to programming,” she said, adding that attending the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) Festival at Northeast Iowa Community College in Calmar also broadened Max’s and other students’ minds to the possibilities robotics presents.

The Extension office has formed great partnerships with other organizations, Shannon said, with funding from the Upper Mississippi Gaming Corporation and 3M helping them purchase the robots. She said the program has some strong kids, but more adult volunteers are also needed to help.

“Sometimes, people feel intimidated by technology, but it’s pretty easy to learn,” she said. “You learn with the kids.”

A first-grade teacher at MFL MarMac, Pam said students are hungry to learn more about STEM-related topics. This year, she said she downloaded a coding app on the computer for her students to try. 

“There’s a grid that has them move and drag and drop with arrows,” she explained. “They’re not afraid of it. They’re not afraid to make mistakes.”

Max and Karter described robotics as a fun, educational and rewarding experience.

“It’s a lot of fun trying to come up with ideas,” Karter said. “Building and programming is fun and it’s a lot of fun to hang out with friends.”

“It’s rewarding getting to see the finished project work,” Max said.

Both Max and Karter hope to become engineers when they’re older, and said robotics helps them with math skills as well as teamwork.

Pam said she enjoys seeing how robotics helps them learn.

“It’s interesting to watch them interact and work together and talk through the process,” she noted.

“It’s rewarding to see them take on a challenge and keep going,” Shannon added.

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