Students' field trip has them building robots

Jan. 20, 2014 @ 01:17 PM

In a classroom-style building tucked into the corner of one of the old Shuford Mills buildings, all chipping paint on brick walls, 10 sixth-graders from Granite Falls Middle School wearing safety glasses put parts and pieces together, making robots.  

The students spent their half-day on Friday making what they called eggbots — basically, robots capable of drawing on spherical surfaces the size of eggs — at Foothills Community Workshop. In this case, the spherical surface used was ping-pong ball.

Each eggbot can be connected to a computer and is driven by two motors — one that turns the ball (or egg) back and forth, and one that moves an attached pen across the ball’s surface. The machines can take any design made in a drawing program such as Adobe Illustrator — or Inkscape, an open-source version that the Foothills Community Workshop folks like to use — and recreate it on the surface of a spherical object.

“It can do all kinds of drawings,” said Rich Goldner, the founder of Foothills Community Workshop.  “Whatever you can do on your computer screen, it’ll wrap it around a ping-pong ball.”

The spirit of the project — which is designed not to complete a task but simply to create something — is in line with the ethos of Foothills Community Workshop, a group that exists so that people can tinker for fun.

The workshop is a “hackerspace,” which Goldner defined as “a group of people who like to make things.” The members occupy about 4,000 square feet in the old mill building in Granite Falls, where they make everything from model trains to set pieces for community theater productions.

When Granite Falls Middle robotics teacher Randy Seldomridge and principal Bill Schreiber toured the space earlier this year, they were drawn to the eggbots, Goldner said. So they set up a time for the school’s engineering club to learn how to make them.

Goldner said he hoped the day of eggbot engineering would spark a desire in the kids to make more — not to make more eggbots, necessarily, but to simply take the time to create something.

“When I was a kid, I was always building something — most kids were,” he said. “They liked to take stuff apart and figure out how it worked. But these days, the kids just want to be in front of a video game. I want to see them have an opportunity to do something like this and get excited about it, and hopefully do more and more.”

The students followed written instructions on Friday as they created the eggbots, but more than that, they followed the little verbal adjustments coming from Seldomridge and the workshoppers.

“Ask questions if you don’t understand what’s going on here,” Goldner told them. “I don’t expect you to understand everything.”

And the project, with all its tweaking and changing and starting over, seemed to be a hit with the kids.

“I think this is one of the best field trips I’ve ever been on,” one of the sixth-graders said, unprompted by any of the adults (or reporters) in the room. “This one, you actually build something.”