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Science of robotics finding keen interest among Ayer students

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AYER — Most students look forward to getting on the bus to go home when school lets out, but not the after-school robotics program participants at Ayer Middle School.

On Tuesday afternoons, under the supervision of Steve Branam, a dedicated group of students meets in the art room to explore the science of robotics. Branam, a parent of two children in the Ayer schools, is a software engineer with Juniper Networks and uses the Lego Robotics Invention System to introduce this topic to the interested students.

“The Lego kit is great because all kids have used Lego at one point or another, so it is a familiar medium for them,” Branam said.

The students start by building a creation from Legos. They may design something on their own or utilize one of several diagrams found in the Lego Robotics text. After the construction phase, students then add computer boards, motors and sensors to make their creations more interactive, and software to create programs that allow the robot to perform functions such as turning, raising an arm or making a noise.

“My goal is to introduce students to the basic concepts of programming in general, and then move into the specifics of programming their robot,” Branam said. “This is a great hands-on learning situation. They learn to plan how they are going to build something, build it, and then problem-solve using the experimental method. If parts are falling off the robot, then the students know they need to rework something. If their robot is not responding to commands as expected, then the students know they need to reprogram.”

Students involved in the program have built devices that can follow along a wall, using technology similar to that used in the popular Roomba device, a robotic vacuum cleaner, made by IRobot Corp., that sweeps the floor with no human assistance. All of the kids receive hands-on experience doing real-world technical work.

Afterschool efforts such as the robotics program let students try out different disciplines to see if they might be interested in pursuing one further.

“I do this program twice a year so I can allow more students to experience it,” Branam said, noting that students seem to like the instant feedback they receive.

“If their robot doesn’t work correctly, they know immediately that they need to redesign or adapt their device,” the engineer said.

And the students seem to enjoy their time with Branam. Student Karen Bouchard said she enjoys her experience working with Branam and that she looks forward to the Tuesday afternoon meetings of the robotics club.

“When I was a little kid, Santa would always get me Lego stuff and I always liked it,” Bouchard said. “I heard about this robotics thing and how it uses Legos, so I wanted to try it.”

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