A Lego Mindstorms NXT robot directed itself through a maize at McPherson Middle School.

A Lego Mindstorms NXT robot directed itself through a maize at McPherson Middle School.

It was not powered by a remote control, but rather a series of letters, numbers and symbols downloaded to its memory by students. The lesson was part of a three-week unit on robotics taught within a Technology 2 class this semester.

Leading the class of about 50 is technology teachers Curt Kornhaus and Sarah Burk. Robotics has been part of the curriculum for 19 years, but a recent summer workshop spurred them on to try this new machine.

Unlike previous robots, the Mindstorms NXT operates without a connecting cable. Its purchase was made possible through a McPherson Education Foundation grant.

Throughout the class the students learn how to assemble the robot and teach it commands, which grow incrementally more difficult as the students advance. Last week, students told it how to make it from Point A to Point B and back on a flat maize, making a total of six turns.

Commands are typed into a computer and sent to the robot. Each tire had its own motor, and the program can tell which motor to go how fast for how long.

For example, “motor[motorC]=100;” would tell Motor C to move forward with 100 percent power. The semi-colon would communicate the end of one command.

“I actually find it very easy if you think logically,” Kornhaus said. “Once you understand the punctuation that goes with different commands, it makes more sense.”

Kornhaus said he has enjoyed watching the students become more confident in their abilities. One asked him how to do something, but he responded by advising they figure it out themselves.

“Once they did, they said, ‘That wasn't so bad,’” he said. “They figure out they can do it. In that regard, it’s very rewarding to see them have success.”

Eighth-grader Jimmy Fortner works on robots at home and has enjoyed learning more in the class.

“It’s kind of like that trial-and-error thing,” he said. “It’s going to get boring if you keep getting it right all the time.”

But getting it right is a good reward.

“You feel really happy. It feels like you really accomplished something,” he said. “It seems like I understand this more than other things.”

Seventh-grader Sierra Behrens said she enjoys the hands-on aspect of the class and is encouraged to do more when she accomplishes tasks, such as making the robot reach Point B. Group member Lola Rodriguez said its easier to accomplish those tasks as a team, because they can pull their ideas together to make it work.

Kornhaus said the school will offer a class entirely dedicated to robotics for the 2013-2014 school year, which could eventually lead to competitions.

“It will hopefully encourages them to learn as much as they can and tackle the challenges that are different in the way they think,” he said.

This is because, as opposed to video game commands that are written within a larger program, the students learn to make the code structure themselves.

“Here, they’re actually writing the code, and some of them have never done that before,” he said. “I think it makes them become a lot more critical thinkers and evaluate what effect that’s going to have before they implement it with the robot.”

These skills will help students who are interested in technology for post-graduate work or education.

“We’re just exposing them to more things, so at a younger age, they start to think about what they want to do in the future,” Burk said. “Who knows what they are going to be doing?”

Contact Jenae Pauls at jpauls@mcphersonsentinel.com and follow her on Twitter @PaulsSentinel