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The Art of… Robotics 

The word "sumo" typically conjures up images of large, scantily-clad men pushing each other around a ring.

But it was robots — not wrestlers — fighting for supremacy during a Sumo Bots class on a recent Saturday afternoon in the Shaw's community space in South Burlington.

Husband-and-wife team Christine and Kevin Braun were leading the class, which is part of their robotics program, called Robots for Kids Too — or R4-K2. Its mission: to empower kids and teens to be makers, rather than just users, of technology.

The South Hero couple, who homeschool two of their three sons, have offered their robotics classes to the homeschool community for the past three years. This winter, they opened up their programs to all 7- to 15-year-olds.

The Sumo Bots class is an introductory offering; students must complete the six-week session to advance to the next level.

For the first class of the most recent Sumo Bots session, four long tables were set up around the room. On each table sat several plastic storage systems containing a multitude of small interlocking parts, as well as a small rectangular LEGO Mindstorms EV3 Intelligent Brick a little bigger than a bar of soap — the heart and brains of the robot. Two small wheels were attached to the back of each brick; two large wheels, along with a light sensor, were attached to the front.

In the middle of the room was the battle ring — a sizable, black, circular platform with a white border.

The instructors split the group of eight kids into four groups of two. Kevin explained that the robots on each table were self-driving machines programmed to detect the white border of the battle ring with their light sensors. They'd go head to head in the ring and try to push each other out; the bot that stayed in the longest would be declared the winner.

Then Christine briefly reviewed the scientific method and asked teams to hypothesize about how they could build their bot to win its upcoming match.

The kids were soon immersed in construction. One group built defenses around its robot's wheels. Another created a ramp attached on the front designed to lift an opposing robot's motor off the ground.

After working for about 10 minutes, 12-year-old Orin Goss, one of two students who had taken the class before, asked his novice teammate, "Should we test?" She nodded, and they brought their robot to the middle of the ring, turned it on and watched.

When Orin noticed the bot tipping a little to one side, he declared, "We have to fix that weight problem."

It's exactly this kind of experimentation and problem solving the Brauns are trying to encourage in their classes, Christine says.

Soon it was time for the first in a series of three battle rounds. Team One and Team Two positioned their bots face-to-face in the ring and turned them on. Everyone watched intently as the machines zipped around the ring, nudging each other back and forth. After about 10 seconds, Team One's bot nudged Team Two's bot out of the ring, and the winning team's members did a quick fist pump in celebration.

After several more matchups, teams went back to their tables, adding on to or changing their machines in preparation for the next battle round.

The first three sessions of Sumo Bots are devoted to hardware, with participants focused on building better bots by learning about concepts such as balance and center of gravity. In the latter part of the course, kids delve into the programming component of robotics using Lego Mindstorms software. It allows them to change variables such as the robot's turning radius and the speed of its motor by clicking on icons on the computer screen. Kevin describes it as a "visual way to interact with code."

The couple steer away from teaching students how to write code; because programming languages are constantly changing, Kevin says, it's more important to teach kids and young teens the logic behind the systems.

"We take a less academic approach," he explains. "At the end of the day, we really want the kids to have fun."

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