It wasn't that long ago that robotics and computer programming were subjects reserved for graduate students in university computer science departments.
These days, hooking a hand-assembled 'bot up to a computer and programming it to perform a series of tasks is, well, child's play.
Anyone who doesn't believe it can drop by Eugene Field Elementary School in Maryville around 3:30 p.m. on a Wednesday or Friday and watch the eight fourth-graders in teacher Joe Suchan's after-school enrichment class do their stuff.
The group has been learning how to assemble and program Lego Mindstorm robots for about a month now. Teams of two or three students work with a single 'bot, customizing the $300 kits with parts sorted into large plastic trays containing dozens of gears, wheels, knobs, shafts, pulleys, axles and belts.
But putting the robots together is the easy part. The real challenge – and what these tech-age youngsters say they enjoy most — is programming their computerized creatures to perform as many tasks as possible, a list of actions and reactions seemingly limited only by a 9-year-old's fertile imagination.
On Wednesday, the group added golf club-like mechanical arms to the 'bots, and then programmed them to roll up to a colored plastic ball and knock it across the table.
To accomplish this feat, the children had to download various program components from a menu displayed on a computer screen, mixing and matching different command parameters to obtain the desired result.
Properly programmed, the robots use motion, light and touch sensors to accelerate, react to distance, stop, rotate, roll backwards and maneuver around obstacles.
"They've impressed me," said Suchan of his students' growing expertise. "They've moved a lot faster than I thought they would."
The after-school robotics program is funded by a federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers Grant administered by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Eugene Field received about $3,000 in grant funds, enough to pay for 12 robots and associated workbooks, software and components.
Similar programs, often involving programming competitions, are becoming common at the high school and college level, and Suchan is hopeful that Eugene Field's robotics offerings can be expanded through the R-2 School District's more advanced grade levels.
"The idea is to get the students to develop a taste for it now so that it will develop into something more advanced later," he said.
Now that they've completed the robotic arm exercise, the eight-student group is moving on to an even more advanced exercise, programming their 'bots to negotiate a large maze.
"The kids will have to measure the maze and then design a program so that the robots can get through it," Suchan said. "We're about halfway there."