PORT RICHEY — All it took was a toothbrush head, a battery and a magnet, and sixth-grader Ariela Lombardi had built herself a fully functioning mini robot.
"This is so cool!" Ariela exclaimed, taking a moment to admire her "brush bot" before racing it against other robotic creations at Chasco Middle School's media center. "Whee!"
In the eyes of Kayleigh Carver, the Chasco Middle science teacher who administers this free four-week robotics camp with colleague Mark Zosmann, the students are making something more than fun toys. They might be finding their way onto a technological career path.
"We might have the next John Glenn or Albert Einstein in this camp," Carver said with a smile. "We're opening doors for them that they might not have seen, giving them insight into careers."
And that's the whole idea behind the first Chasco Middle School robotics camp, which started July 9 and runs through Aug. 2. It's funded by Title I dollars given to schools that serve lower-income areas.
"When we were allocating our Title I funds for the summer, we wanted to start a project that would immerse kids in subjects like math, science and technology," said principal Dave Huyck. "This camp covers all of it."
"We're working with these kids to get them the skills they need today," added Zosmann, also a science teacher at Chasco Middle.
Chasco Middle teachers recommended a cross section of students in grades six through eight for inclusion in the camp; some are certified gifted pupils, some are served through the school's Title I program, all have a strong interest in technology-based learning. They are assigned to make their own simple robots, such as the brush bot and the hand effector, a tool made of wood, straws, duct tape and strings that works like a robot hand.
"This is how a robot interacts with its environment," said sixth-grader Emma Dunfee, pulling the strings of her hand effector to make its fingers close and open.
Emma, the daughter of a computer professional, said her father's work in this field inspired her participation in the robotics camp.
"I thought it would be interesting to learn more," she said.
She and her classmates are learning not only by creating their own robots, but by working with fully functioning, previously assembled T-bots — miniature robots that students can program to do everything from stack and knock down piles of blocks to type out words and simple sentences on the computer.
"We want you to brainstorm ideas on what you can get your robot to do," Zosmann told the kids. "Come up with ideas and write a program."
As they work, students are encouraged to use safety precautions at all times, wearing goggles when needed. They are asked to work in teams and cooperate, to develop both their creative and technical skills, to keep their work areas clean and tidy, and to learn basic terms and concepts related to robotics.
Most of all, they're encouraged to have fun.
"Before they didn't realize they could do something like this," said Carver. "Now they're doing it well. They come in every day excited, asking 'What are we doing next?' "
And while seventh-grader David Thielmann admitted "My job's not easy!" as he and lab partner David Slusher determined the mathematical coordinates that would put their T-bot in motion, stacking a tower of blocks. He hopped up and down with excitement as their plans and project came to fruition.
"Robots are cool!" he exclaimed.