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Date Published: 
Friday, January 25, 2013
FESTival On Campus Includes Special Guest to Highlight STEM

What is a robot? (Read on. Hint, it's not just a mechanical person.) Do people conduct electricity? How do traction and center of gravity affection motion? Difficult questions for a second grader? Not really. Proof of that was in evidence at the free FESTival (Families Enjoying Science Together) at IPA on the evening of January 22.

Children from grades 2 to 7 learned some simple lessons about electrical conduction, laws of motion, and innovative design as they prepared to construct their own brushbots and compete in speed races and “sumo” tournament with their creations. The FEST program is sponsored by NASA as part of its efforts to excite students about STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects and careers.

“This kind of active, hands-on process really gets students engaged in learning in a meaningful way,” observed Michelle Bradley, secondary division science teacher and robotics program coordinator. “The IPA science and math curriculum emphasizes engineering, design and innovation beginning in elementary grades,” she added.

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A mother and daughter learn about Bernoulli's principle with a "windbag wonder" while Art Kimura uses a UFO ball to demonstrate conductivity.

Open to the public, the FEST event let parents sample the ways in which students learn important scientific principles in active and fun ways. The program was presented by Art Kimura, Education Specialist with NASA Space Grant Consortium, and his wife, Rene, who arrived with brushbot kits, “magic” UFO Balls, giant plastic "wind" bags, and a host of other props to entertain and enlighten the audience.

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Students pose with Elwood, a well-traveled life-size doll.

Special guest Elwood made an appearance to encourage students to dream big and to pursue STEM career paths. Not a person, and not a robot, Elwood is a life-size doll and Kimura is currently his “foster dad” while he is residing in Hawaii. The 31-year old Elwood has traveled several times around the globe (4.5 million miles, in fact), meeting presidents and prime ministers along with thousands of students in a host of countries. He’s even been into space aboard a Space Shuttle flight. You can read more about his adventures at:

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Each student worked with their parent to construct a brushbot from a toothbrush head, bit of plastic straw, rubber band, AAA battery, bit of adhesive, and small motor.

Elwood looked on as students and parents designed their brushbots, experimenting with ways to give the brush bristles better traction for the speed races, and discovering how to affect the brushbot’s center of gravity for the sumo tournament by adding extra features. What made some tip over or spin too fast or move too slowly? Logic, trial and error, and knowledge all combined to produce desired results (well, most of the time).

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Students raced their finished brushbots on "tracks" and on pie pan "sumo" rings.

Kimura used special UFO ping-pong balls equipped with very low voltage electrical devices to demonstrate that, indeed, people can conduct electricity. With one person touching the metal strip on the ball, and holding hands with a circle of friends, even with fingers of some people in water, the red light on the ball was made to flash, proof that the electrical circuit had been completed. That demonstration helped the students understand the use of a battery and tiny motor to power their brushbots.

So, what is a robot? Kimura defined it for the audience as “any device that performs a function that a human would otherwise be required to do.” A home smoke or security alarm qualifies – relieving the home owner of the need for a person to always be present to detect danger. A traffic light is a robot, freeing police to do other tasks. Understanding a need or purpose, knowing basic scientific principles and facts (or other kinds of knowledge), and then applying logic and creativity leads to innovation and entrepreneurship. That is a blueprint for success in the 21st century, and the curriculum focus for all students at IPA.