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Nebraska Robotics Expo engineers excitement

Entering the Strategic Air and Space Museum any day opens up a world of engineering feats, but when the Nebraska Robotics Expo took over the place, the excitement was exponential. Hundreds of elementary and middle school students from Nebraska and beyond converged for the 2010 event, which included a showcase of CEENbots and the First Lego League competition. The Expo was collaboratively organized, led by 4-H Youth Development’s GEAR-Tech-21 program with support from the National Science Foundation.

Following Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman's opening ceremony remarks, part of the crowd moved to the museum’s east wing, where 34 CEENbot teams showed off. They came from 18 elementary schools that used kits and curriculum developed by the UNL Department of Computer Electronics and Engineering. Teams controlled their CEENbots through an obstacle course and a ball-gathering exercise. A cadre of Nebraska Engineering students from the CEEN program, led by Professor Bing Chen (CEEN department chair), helped answer questions from the kids, teachers and parents.

Sierra McLaughlin, a third grader with Hartman Elementary School’s “Hawks” team, was proud that “I can make ‘CEENdi’ (their CEENbot) go in all directions.” Her father, Kevin, said Sierra and her cousin, Ryan, have enjoyed the robotics learning, which has “made them more excited about school.” The younger McLaughlins’ team leader, Hartman fourth grade teacher CJ Barry, said this first year with the CEENbots helped her students "develop ingenuity" (hence the "di" in their robot's name), from understanding technology to dealing with teamwork issues.

Meanwhile, on the west side of the building, middle schoolers took robotics to the next level with First Lego League (FLL) activities. Emphasizing Challenges and Core Values, the FLL program engages students in building autonomous robots to carry out pre-designed missions in two minutes and 30 seconds, and using teamwork to analyze, research, and invent a solution to a real world problem. On laptops and at practice tables amid the museum’s huge aircrafts, teams tweaked the programming of their robots, before competing at the main tables flanked by fervent fans, a feisty announcer and rambunctious techo-music. The day also juggled their presentations and sessions with judges deconstructing their preparation for lessons learned.

Nebraska Engineering students were mentors to three Lincoln-based FLL teams. Sarah Royse, a senior who majors in mechanical engineering, led Team “Chupacabraz” while MECH senior Tim Prost mentored “Team 3!” and MECH senior Tyler Holm helped the “Phantom 7.5” team. The teams had been meeting since fall, and the Nebraska Engineering students said they became involved as “a way to help out.”

“It’s fun to get a break from college,” said Royse, whose next task is recruiting younger UNL students to coach local teams for next year’s event. A neighboring team from Lincoln called “GirlTech” was sponsored by Time Warner Cable, through the company’s “Connect A Million Minds” efforts for science and math education. Their coach described the youngsters in this experience as “a force to be reckoned with,” citing the “adaptive skills” her team gained this year as “one of life’s great lessons.”

For more information on CEENbots, see For details on Nebraska’s First Lego League, see