MCLA robotics camp adds an emphasis on science


NORTH ADAMS -- Things don't always go as planned at Robotics Summer Science Camp.

Lego cars will fall apart. Robots won't follow the directions their programmers had planned. And occasionally, a soldering iron might fall off its stand and melt part of a table. But that's all part of the fun, according to the camp participants and instructor.

"That's pretty much what this camp is for us," said Andrais Stetson, a rising sixth-grader from Vermont who's attending the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts program for the second summer with one of his best friends, Ellis Glazer, of North Bennington.

Now in its 10th year, the robotics camp this year expanded its name to include the word "science."

"I wanted to put a little more emphasis on the science of things this year and how we use it every day," said MCLA physics instructor Paul Allen, who runs the program. "Everything that's happening in this room can be explained by science."

The camp kicked off Monday with an introduction to the scientific process, how robots work, and a lesson in sports science and how angles influence distance. To demonstrate this, Allen had the program's 13 campers create projectile launchers using a protractor, plastic straw and rubber band, and measured the distance the straw traveled after being launched at various angles. For the record, a 45-degree angle, in most cases, will cause a projectile to travel the farthest distance.

On Tuesday, campers learned to solder and created a sound-to-light converter. If constructed correctly, the sound of someone's voice would be received through a tiny microphone. The audio signal would be converted into an electrical signal and cause a tiny red LED bulb to light up.

Later on, the students continued to work on robotic Lego vehicles using programs and parts from Lego Mindstorms' RCX and NXT generations.

First-time camper Dan Lamontagne, a rising eight-grader in neighboring New York state's Berlin Central School District, explained why he wanted to spend a sunny summer week doing activities inside the social hall of MCLA's Church Street Center: "First of all, I like Legos. Second of all, I love science."

He and Linden Niedeck, a rising sixth-grader from Lenox, have both done robotics at their schools. For fun, they constructed a small working model vending machine out of Legos.

"Some of these kids come in with some knowledge and some of them come in raw, and they get it all," Allen said.

Olivia Winters, a rising sixth-grader at Williamstown Elementary School, is a first-time camper -- and also the lone girl in this week's group. "I've never soldered before," she said. "I've done a little bit of programming, but mostly it's trial and error."

Partnered with Kyle Betit, a rising eighth-grader at St. Agnes Academy in Dalton, they're working to build a robotic vehicle that runs on tracks.

For kids like rising eighth-graders Eric Ovletrea of Nessacus Regional Middle School and Rutger Thurston who's heading to Drury High School in North Adams, the camp is helping them hone in on their favorite subjects and build skills for the future.

"There are only one or two other students I know in my class who are in love with science as much as me," Ovletrea said. He said he's lapped up everything he's learned at Nessacus, from music technology to industrial arts, and wants to go into the game design program at Full Sail University in Florida.

Betit has his sights set on going to either Worcester Polytechnic Institute or Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, to become an engineer.

"This program gives kids tons of useful things to know," said Johnny Werner, who'll be a freshman at Mount Greylock Regional School this fall. A former camper, he now helps Allen in running the camp. "Learning to solder ... is a wonderful skill to learn. If lightning strikes and blows a circuit, you'll know how to fix it."

To reach Jenn Smith:,
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