Originally created 09/30/03

Young scientists get a head start



Yellow caution tape cordons off the area around the door to the lab, while two security officers stand guard.

Visitors must suit up in a white lab coat, and badges are checked for clearance.

Behind closed doors, 10 Augusta Preparatory Day School seventh-graders are on a top-secret mission to learn all they can about computer programming and robotics.

"Everyone wants to know what's going on. Most of us tell them its classified," said Austin Duehring.

Their teacher, John Stephens, head of the middle school, describes the new class as a "computer class with an attitude," an adrenaline rush fueled by colored lights, thumping techno music and flicking strobe lights.

"It's got a life of its own," Mr. Stephens said.

The class has built two robots so far. The first one they created had an arm and a claw that operates manually. But as the class learned more, they created a second-generation robot that operates through macros - a series of commands bundled into one, Akshey Walia said.

The macros they have created include "fast food," which orders the robot to pick up candy from one dish and drop it into another, and "pumpiniron" which creates a weight-lifting action in the robot arm.

During a recent class, Brad Davis was at his computer in the lab building a virtual robot on the Web site www.bbc.co.uk/science/robots/techlab. The site allows the pupils to select from an inventory and drag and drop parts into place.

"I really like computers and robots and thought it would be cool to learn how to build one," Brad said.

It's a pupil-driven class, Mr. Stephens said, with a goal to learn more about programming as the year progresses.

"Writing in this kind of language is challenging," he said. "They have to think very logically and linearly. They can't assume a robot will do anything they don't tell it to do. They are learning as they go, and their curiosity is driving what we do here."

Reach Melissa Hall at (706) 868-1222, ext. 113, or melhall@augustachronicle.com.