October 26, 2017

Junk Drawer Robotics

You’ve probably heard or read something about millennials, and often the message is negative. If you’re older, you might remember when it was your generation that everyone was worrying or complaining about. One thing is for sure, this cycle repeats itself.

Let me ask you this, what are you doing to make sure this next generation is better? I’m not even sure what label they’ll stick on the kids we are raising now. I’ve seen them called “Generation Z,” and the “iGeneration,” but I do know labels don’t solve problems or create highly functioning adults.

You have a tremendous amount of influence and you may not even realize it. I urge you, find something you love and teach it to this next generation.

I am involved with a 4-H program called Junk Drawer Robotics. We have conducted three week-long robotics day camps as well as several other programs both in and out of school using the Junk Drawer curriculum, available from the National 4-H store.

Here’s a secret about me: I’m a “word” person, not a “math” person. When I originally got involved with this program I was intimidated, thinking, “What if I have to explain the hypotenuse of a triangle? I barely passed geometry.” Fortunately, the curriculum had all the information I needed to appear qualified. By design, Junk Drawer Robotics relies on the kids to design, construct and re-engineer their projects until they get them to work. I really just serve as “Safety Officer,” keeping them on task (creativity sometimes gets off topic) as well as supervising the hot-glue guns and the cordless drill.

Participants are provided with their own engineering lab books, problems to solve and all kinds of household tools. They’re also provided with a “trunk of junk” that includes wheels, gears, electric motors (I learned how to solder wires onto toy motors), paper towel and toilet paper cores, popsicle sticks, rubber bands, paper clips and a massive array of everyday items.

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I’ve seen kids make a battery-operated boat out of a toy motor, clothes hanger, and ping pong balls. I’ve seen kids take popsicle sticks, paper towel tubes, hot glue, aquarium tubing and syringes to create a robotic arm that could pick up a cotton ball and write with a sharpie. Kids can do amazing things with their creativity if you’ll get out of the way and let them.

Believe it or not, I had to keep the moms out of the room. Here’s the thing I’ve observed (and I say this with all the love in my heart because I’m a mom, too), moms get way too involved. They hate to see their kids struggle with creating a moveable robotic arm out of popsicle sticks. They just can’t help themselves. Moms don’t like to see their kids fail, but it’s in the failing that kids learn a new way to solve problems. Moms fix things. It’s what we do. So if you decide to do the Junk Drawer Robotics, kick the moms out.

There is a University of Arkansas, Division of Agriculture, Cooperative Extension office in every county in Arkansas, and they coordinate the 4-H youth development program. The 4-H programs are successful because they utilize volunteers, so get involved, become a volunteer, teach some kids whatever you’re passionate about. Do your part for the next generation.

Melissa Beck

Arkansas Women Bloggers member Melissa Beck lives on a farm in southwest Arkansas with her husband of 25 years. Together they have raised three great kids and innumerable head of cattle. Melissa is a writer, a stocker-cattle producer and enjoys taking pictures of cattle noses.