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Robotics competition highlights computer programming skills

December 21, 2017

KOKOMO, Ind. —At first glance, it would appear the students in Hunt Hall are playing with remote controlled LEGO cars, cheering as they dodge and weave to avoid hitting one another, or groaning when they collide with a crash.

Students watch the robotics competition

This is not child’s play, however — these Indiana University Kokomo students are actually demonstrating their ability to write computer programs, through a robotics competition for those in the computer science and informatics programs.

For freshman Kyle Strong, the competition demonstrated how far he’s come in developing skill — and confidence in his ability to write a computer program.

“This class helped me see programming as more than a bunch of letters and numbers and zeros. It helped me see the result of it, in a way I could touch,” said Strong, “I’ve used computers my whole life. I know everything about the software and hardware and operating systems, but I’ve never done the programming because I was intimidated by it.”

Strong, from Russiaville, and his teammates Nathan McDaniel, Noah Moody, and Adam Vaughan won the competition with their robot.

Applying classroom instruction to a hands-on activity was a plus for Vaughan.

“It’s gotten me really excited about the field, and I want to jump in and see how far I can take it,” Vaughn said. “Testing our robot against others, and winning, gave me a boost in confidence. I’ve signed up for more classes in the program.”

That was exactly the response Chen Zhong, assistant professor of informatics, and Hong Lui, assistant professor of computer programming, wanted when they developed the LEGO EV3 competition for their entry level classes.

Zhong recalled the initial frustration she felt when she first began to learn programming, and wanted to show students not only that they have the ability to program, but it is fun.

“When they have success, and realize they can accomplish this, they gain confidence,” she said. “Once they gain confidence, they will keep learning, and they are motivated to learn.”

Working in teams, students programmed their robots in three projects, then merged their programs. They created programs to enable a touch sensor, show a points balance, and deduct points when the sensor is touched; to install an infrared sensor, detect distance from the nearest object, and make a turn if an object is less than one foot away; and to detect the color red and speed forward to hit that object.

Each task built on the other, and used the programming skills learned in class, Liu noted. They had to decide if their program required a loop structure, that repeated an action; or a decision or selection structure, that allowed the program to make changes based on conditions.

“This is a very basic structure, but all programs are built on it,” Liu said. “Programming is logic, and everyone can think logically. It’s not something you have to be a genius to do. This activity helped them apply what they learned in class. They gain confidence through accomplishment.”

Each of the 12 robots began the 20-minute competition with 100 points, and gained points by hitting a red supply station or another robot’s touch sensor. They lost points if their own touch sensor was hit, and the winner was the robot with the most points at the end.

Robots had to run on their own, with no help from the programmers, which was difficult for Vaughan.

“It was really fun, but I was kind of antsy,” he said. “Seeing it and trying to make sure you don’t jump in there to protect your little creation was hard. It was exciting to see everything in action.”

Strong appreciates the opportunity to prepare for an in-demand career at IU Kokomo, and encouraged others to consider computer science and informatics.

“There aren’t enough people qualified to fill the demand in technology,” he said. “It may seem intimidating at first, but them you realize you use technology all day, every day. It’s a good field to get into, and well worth it to learn.”

Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.

Last updated: 12/21/2017