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July 7-- Toombs County’s most well-known products are decidedly agricultural in nature, but over the past two summers, a number of industrious Toombs students decided to go in a slightly different direction—they built robots.

{mosimage}Vidalia played host to five robotics summer camps last month organized by Vidalia Comprehensive High School (VHS) science teacher Jeff Ikner (center, with students and their robots.)

“As a physics teacher I look for careers that are opening up for my students,” said Ikner. “Robotics, nuclear engineering, biomedical engineering, and biophysics are areas that are expanding in America, and we should start to prepare our students at an early age for these positions.”

This year’s camps, organized by grade level, were held at J.R. Trippe Middle School and Southeastern Technical College’s Economic Development Center. All the camps had students build and program, but the materials and events were slightly different between the high school students and the younger camps.

While the younger campers competed against one another, the high schoolers programmed their machines, at first, to perform much like the automated vacuum, iROBOT Roomba—the machines moved, sensed obstacles, and changed direction according to programming.


After this, students were asked to make their machines perform one of several more practical tasks. One challenge asked campers to design a system that would detect a pollinator and get an arm to move in order to take a picture of the pollinator.

“For instance, if one wanted continuous 24-hour monitoring of a plant to determine what pollinates the plant, one wouldn't want to do this oneself,” said Ikner. “A robot with an ultrasonic sensor and a servo activating a camera could perform the task without needing sleep.

The robotics camps began with Lisa Adams, project leader for the Southeast Georgia Advanced Manufacturing and Distribution Work Ready Region and former chair of the Southeastern Tech Board of Directors. After writing a grant for STC that focused on encouraging students into industrial engineering and manufacturing, she ordered the industry-standard equipment that would be used in the camps and approached 11 school systems with the plans for the camps.

She gained the interest of Vidalia’s schools, and the first camp was held last year in VHS’s physics lab.

“I think that once this is out there and more people talk about it, interest will increase at other high schools as it increased in the Vidalia system,” said Ikner.

Interest is certainly up around the camps. Last year’s only needed one session to accommodate 27 students. This year, the campers numbered closer to 70: a surge that caught Ikner by surprise and didn’t end even when the camps were under way.

“We had 28 students signed up for one camp, and we had to shift eight of them to other weeks,” said Ikner. “We had around 20 other students call a week after camps were over to sign up, and a few called during.”