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Robotics club turns kids into superheroes

There’s a new group of superheroes in town, complete with capes — even if it’s just on the mascot on their T-shirts.

The group of kids are members of the Superbots, one of several 4-H clubs in Boulder City. The Superbots is a robotics team and recently qualified to compete in the First Lego League’s Legoland North American Open to be held May 19-21 in Carlsbad, California.

The contest asks team members to design, build and program a robot using Lego Mindstorms technology and then compete on a table-top playing field accomplishing varying tasks. It also wants them to research a real-world problem and develop a solution.

According to the competition’s organizers, the program allows the youngsters to apply science, technology, engineering and math concepts in a fun manner, while developing critical thinking and team-building skills.

This year’s contest had an animal theme and the team visited several businesses and organizations that work with animals, including a veterinarian, where they watched a surgical procedure, and the animal shelter in Boulder City.

It was during their visit with Ann Inabnitt, animal control supervisor, that they came up with a problem that needed their help to solve. Like many pet owners, Ann told the kids she wished there was a way she could communicate with the animals that come to the shelter so she could better determine their needs and help them.

Putting their creativity and expertise to the test, the Superbots decided to develop a smartphone application that will help pet owners understand what the actions their pets are exhibiting truly mean. For example, a rabbit’s “popcorning” — jumping and awkwardly twitching — may look like the animal is upset and angry when in reality it’s just so happy and excited it can’t contain itself.

Because part of the competition also judges the students on their creative presentation skills, the Superbots made up a skit that shows how helpful their app will be.

They presented their skit to Ann recently, demonstrating several of the animals’ actions, how they can be interpreted, what negative response that interpretation resulted in, and what the actions really meant, resulting in a positive experience for each animal and its owner.

In addition they showed off their robot and the various attachments they made to accomplish the tasks required during the competition.

Their enthusiasm for their robot and the competitions is contagious — so much so that the team grew from two to 10 youths in about six years.

Kids in the 4-H program are truly dedicated. Because the program is not affiliated with any school, all of the kids’ work is extracurricular. They must complete all their class assignments and homework in addition to any 4-H activities.

It keeps them pretty busy, said Myra Zielinkski, who serves as co-adviser to the group with her husband, Bill. “Our goal is to give them positive things to do.”

Bill said they need to raise about $4,000 for all of the kids to attend the California competition. They were lucky enough to get the $1,000 entry fee for the invitation-only event paid by the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension program.

There are roughly 40 kids in the Boulder City program.

In addition to robotics, the local 4-H program has other clubs including those focused on teaching the kids how to care for animals, learn to sew and learn to cook. At the moment, the 4-H group has no official home and is meeting in various locations, including a couple of churches. However, Bill says they are eyeing the old Boys and Girls Club location and has been talking to the city about gaining access to the facility.

Unfortunately, since it has sat empty and unused for awhile it has been vandalized and is in need of some major repairs. Bill estimates they need about $25,000 to make it usable again.

Anyone wanting more information about 4-H should call Bill or Myra at 702-294-1689.

Hali Bernstein Saylor is editor of the Boulder City Review. She can be reached at hsaylor@bouldercityreview.com or at 702-586-9523. Follow @HalisComment on Twitter.

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