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The Eco-Bot Challenge Participants pose with a 4-H sign at Somerset Middle School. The group was made up of mostly SMS students, but there were a few St. Anne's students and 4-H members present as well. The Eco-Bot Challenge is this year's 4-H National Youth Science Day challenge, put on yearly by the National 4-H Council. This is the first year the St. Croix County 4-H Council and the University of Wisconsin-Extension have been able to bring the 4-H National Youth Science Day Challenge to St. Croix Coun...

Eco-Bots sweep St. Croix County

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Kids chatted and conspired as they planned the best way to use their tiny robots made of toothbrushes to sweep rice off the black parts of the paper map each group had been given. Small buzzing sounds wove around the kids chatter as the little robots' motors ran.

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Around 54 fifth- through seventh-graders participated in the Eco-Bot Challenge, held at Somerset Middle School on Oct. 11. The Eco-Bot Challenge is the 2012 4-H National Youth Science Day Challenge.

Jessica Sprain, interim 4-H Youth Development Program advisor, said this is the first year St. Croix County 4-H has been able to hold a 4-H National Youth Science Day Challenge event, thanks to a grant from Donaldson Filtration Solutions.

Sprain said St. Croix County held two events. The Somerset event was the second of the two, the first occurred Oct. 10 in Baldwin.

"It's a great opportunity for youth to be involved and get excited about what they could do with engineering science," Sprain said.

The students were split into groups of two and three and given one paper map per group, depicting the fictitious Bailey Beach. The map had black splotches where a mock oil spill supposedly occurred. The goal was for students to "clean up" the mess with their Eco-Bots.

Each student was given a toothbrush head, a watch battery, a cell phone vibrator motor and some foam tape with which they constructed their Eco-Bot. The tape and some wires connected the battery to the motor and tape connected all of that to the top of the toothbrush head. When turned on, the Eco-Bots buzzed around the maps.

"It's an autonomous robot," said Eric Olson, technical education instructor at SMS, "so they have to guide it."

Olson worked with Sprain and St. Croix County 4-H to bring the Eco-Bot challenge to Somerset.

The kids had to figure out how to keep the Eco-Bots in the "spill" area using paper, small paper cups, straws and masking tape, to help them clean up as much of the "spill" as possible.

"If it (an Eco-Bot) hits a wall, it'll go the other way," Olson said. "So they have to build a wall out of straws and cups."

To test their strategies, the kids poured rice on the black "oil spill" areas of their maps and after running their Eco-Bots, they counted how many black squares had been cleared of rice.

The kids experiemented using different methods of containing and controlling the Eco-Bots to improve their cleaning efficiency.

"I've seen hundreds of variations," said Andre Johnson, fifth grade science teacher at Somerset Middle School. Johnson helped Olson run the event.

The point of the challenge, Olson said, was to help get kids interested in science and engineering.

"I think we need to get as many people that are or would be interested in those fields interested," Olson said. "This is just one way to do that."

Olson said getting kids interested in engineering, math and science fields could help lead them down the path to a good job someday. He said there are many jobs available for people in engineering and similar fields.

"Even with the unemployment rate where it is, those jobs are going unfulfilled," Olson said, "because they don't have qualified applicants.

According to several of the kids participating in the challenge, Olson may have met his goal.

Several young scientists said they enjoyed working with the Eco-Bots, including Somerset fifth-grader Ryan Knudtson, 10. Knudtson is a member of Forestview 4-H Club.

"They're kind of funny," Knudtson said.

"They're fun, not hard to put together," added Knudtson's group-mate Andrew Haase, also a Forestview 4-H Club member.

"You get to brush your teeth and have a back massage," joked Allison Struemke, 10, a fifth-grader at St. Anne's School. Struemke and her partner Alicia Diethert said they like the Eco-Bots and the idea that the robots could clean up the environment. They said they also enjoy doing math and science experiments like the Eco-Bot challenge.

Becky Olson also helped lead the Eco-Bot Challenge. She, Donna Smith and Ann Mitchell are all co-leaders of a new 4-H club in Somerset, which they have been calling Tri-River 4-H Club. They said the name is still a work in progress. The Tri-River 4-H Club is the first 4-H club in Somerset in a while, Sprain said, and she said the Eco-Bot Challenge was their first big event, kicking off the new club.

After the challenge was completed, Sprain said the participants were given information on 4-H, in the hopes they might choose to join the club.

Many of the kids who attended the event were from Somerset Middle School; however, Olson said he advertised the event at St. Anne's and other places around the community.

"We tried to get as many people involved as we can," Olson said. "The more people we can get excited about math and science and technology the better."

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Gretta Stark
Gretta Stark has been a reporter for the River Falls Journal since July of 2013. She previously worked as a reporter for the New Richmond News from June 2012 to July 2013. She holds a BA in Print and Electronic Media from Wartburg College.
(715) 426-1048
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