By STEVEN NALLEY
Before her children began studying robotics with Mississippi 4-H, Jill Bordelon knew nothing about the subject.
Today, Bordelon said she has two children in the senior division and one child in the junior division of the program, which teaches robotics throughout the year to children in multiple Mississippi counties. She herself is one of several parents who now help teach the program, and she said she and her children could not have succeeded at robotics without the tools Mississippi State University and its 4-H team offer.
“Together, we all learned, which, to me, is the best way to do it,” Bordelon said. “I think (the children) would agree it’s the (most fun) part of 4-H for them. Of all the programs 4-H offers, robotics is probably the top. I think that has a lot to do with the staff here.”
This week, Bordelon is one of several 4-H volunteers leading children ages 8-13 in the MSU Extension Center for Technology Outreach’s junior robotics camp.
Begun on Sunday, the camp will culminate Tuesday with a robotics night out at McAlister’s Deli from 6-7 p.m. Campers will walk young patrons through various stations and activities representing their work during the camp, including a pre-built robot and a snap circuit.
Mariah Smith, assistant extension professor with MSU, said this is the first overnight junior robotics camp the MSU Extension Service has ever hosted, bringing together children from counties across the state. She said 4-H’s statewide robotics programs started about four years ago and have built up over the years.
“The parents asked last year for an overnight camp, and so we designed the camp as a reward for students who had participated in the robotics program throughout the year,” Smith said. “At this camp... (the students) are building four different types of robots that perform different actions and have different programming requirements.”
In keeping with a sports theme developed for the statewide 4-H robotics programs this year, Smith said the four robot types are each designed to play different sports: soccer, football, baseball and basketball. Their materials are Lego Mindstorms NXT, she said, the same materials Armstrong Middle School used in the FIRST Lego League international robotics competition.
“The 4-H robotics program is designed to prepare 4-Hers to participate in other robotics competitions,” Smith said. Research shows children decide very young whether they want to go into a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) area. We’re just really trying to expose them to it while they’re young. My favorite part of this camp is seeing these kids catch a vision for what their future can be.”
Even more than robotics, Smith said, this camp focuses on confidence building, including public speaking abilities. The robotics night out will help these children develop public speaking abilities as they speak with visitors, she said.
“(On) Sunday night, we had a competition to see who did the best job speaking,” Smith said. “A lot of these children are introverted, so we want to stretch their comfort zone a little bit to reach out into the community, to give back ... and to help other kids catch a vision of what they can do as well.”
Kenzie Ellenberger, an 11-year-old at the camp, said public speaking doesn’t make her nervous, and she is looking forward to the robotics night out. She said she enjoys both programming and building robots at the camp.
“I liked Legos before I started robotics,” Ellenberger said. “(At this camp), you get to meet new people from other counties.”
Kaz Shumpert, a 13-year-old at the camp, said he has been studying robotics with Mississippi 4-H for two years, not only because it is fun but for practical reasons. Robotics plays into several career possibilities he has in mind, he said, including manufacturing.
“(This camp is) a good experience,” Shumpert said. “It gives you more options about jobs and careers.”