Sam Hall, 11, of Madison, watches his robot veer off course before reprogramming it during the EcO15 LEGO Robotics Camp on Wednesday at Southwestern Elementary School. (Staff photo by Ken Ritchie/kritchie@madisoncourier.com)
Sam Hall, 11, of Madison, watches his robot veer off course before reprogramming it during the EcO15 LEGO Robotics Camp on Wednesday at Southwestern Elementary School. (Staff photo by Ken Ritchie/kritchie@madisoncourier.com)
This week, 15 working robots are being built at Southwestern Elementary School. But they aren't being built by seasoned engineers or scientists, they're being created by children with LEGO sets.

The LEGO Robotics Camp, sponsored by EcO15, teaches Jefferson County students to build and program a robot that can perform simple tasks. The robots are built using a LEGO Mindstorms NXT kit, which allow builders to customize a robot with LEGO pieces and appendages for different tasks.

Clayton Anderson, 10, said he and his friend, Trevor Smith, 11, attended the camp last summer, but wanted to come again.

"It's fun. I like to program the robots," Clayton said.

Clayton and Trevor said they were trying out more things with their robot this year, like using treads instead of wheels.

Sound, distance, pressure and light sensors come built in, which let campers program their machines to respond to information that comes from the sensors.

Southwestern Elementary School principal and camp leader Jason Watson said the camp is essentially a basic level computer programing class.

"As they learn how to program their robots, they have little challenges that go along with what they learn," Watson said.

The first challenge for campers, who build their robots in teams of two, is to get the robot to travel around a square drawn on a mat. The challenges advance each day, ending with a mat full of separate tasks that vary in difficulty.

The different jobs on the mat are assigned a point value based on how difficult it is to complete. Students have two and one-half minutes to complete as many tasks as they can.

"There are over 100 points available on the mat," Watson said. "They have to gameplan what tasks to complete in what order" to get the most points possible.

Students can't touch their robots after they leave the starting block, so the tasks have to be programed ahead of time.

The Mindstorms NXT kits come with computer software that teaches them the programing basics.

Students will present their robots to engineers from local companies in the Madison area today to demonstrate what they've learned.

EcO15 Coordinator Kathy Huffman said the camp is just a prelude to things already being taught at middle and high schools in Jefferson County.

"It's a perfect pathway right into the robotics classes taught at the high schools," she said. "(The camp) makes it much more sustainable."

The Mindstorms NXT kits at camp were donated, but Huffman and Watson hope to acquire a set for future camps.

Watson said he hopes to get a set before fall so the camp could be offered during next school year's fall break.