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It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, remorse or fear. And it absolutely will not stop—ever—until it runs out of batteries.

It’s the mBot, a whole army of them, programmed by students in the 10 school districts served by Educational Service Unit 5 in Beatrice.

On Monday, 40 students converged on ESU 5 for a robotics camp to show off the programming and design skills they’d picked up over the last month of working with their mBots.

The mBot is a happy-looking robot, but that’s only because it has a smile stamped into its metallic pink or blue chassis. It has two big wheels in the back and a mechanism with smaller wheels for turning underneath and it’s loaded with sensors and cameras. It can pick up ultraviolet light and can sense the difference between colors and react accordingly.

The kids programmed their robots on laptops, before plugging the mBot into their computers to input the code. It’s part of a goal to promote acquisition of digital age skills said Dr. Nick Ziegler, instructional technology specialist at ESU 5. It’s an attempt to engage youth with computational thinking skills like coding, and innovative design skills, Ziegler said.

“Today's competition is the culmination of that work inside the districts,” he said. “Districts could engage as many students as they desired, but today, only four students are allowed from each of our 10 school districts that ESU 5 serves.”

There were two events on Monday. In the first, students had to teach their robot to navigate around an octagon without running into a cardboard box in the middle. The robots would sense the masking tape lines that surrounded the box and make their way through the space.

Students from the Bruning-Davenport district were having a little bit of trouble as their mBot seemed to take a liking to the cardboard box and danced it in a circle in the middle of the octagon. A quick systems check later, they were able to get a top score in the event.

At the Freeman School District octagon, Grayson Gibbons, Ian Alberts, Tandon Buhr and Zach Robeson were having their own issues. They’d removed the robot from the course and were tinkering with its coding.

“Right now we're just working on how to figure out how to get the sensors to sense the tape on the ground and not to go over it,” Grayson said.

It looked like the problem was in both the coding and with the mBot itself, Ian said.

“The ultrasonic sensor part was messing with the line sensor for some reason,” he said. “Then, it would just keep turning and turning and turning.”

After few code changes and tightening a few screws, they too were earning a top score.

In the next conference room over, students and their mBots were trying to navigate a maze. Each zigzagging course was covered with different colored sheets of construction paper, though a lot more difficult that it sounds.

Madeline Swanson, Madelyn Meyerle, Mallory Denner and Esdon Weers from Diller-Odell were trying to work out how to make their mBot go through all the necessary steps to make it to the end.

“We've got to get through a maze, changing the colors of the bots and playing different sounds,” Madeline said.

“And it can't hit any lines, so they gave us a measurement of how many feet we're supposed to go and the degrees we're supposed to turn,” Madelyn said. “Then, at the end, after you're done going through the maze, you're supposed to do a dance.”

They’d been working with their robot for a couple of months, so far, but it was being kind of a pain on Monday. They had the wheels off for some quick adjustments before putting it back down on the masking tape course.

The robots eyes lit up with each piece of paper it hit, red, blue, yellow, orange and green, each light matched with a sound.

“At the beginning, when we first started with the robots, it was pretty easy, but the more challenges we went through, the harder it got,” Madeline said. “So far, it hasn't been that hard. We've just had to make minor fixes.”

“There's always a few bumps in the road,” Esdon said. “Trial and error.”


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