Using inch-long "Eco-Bots" made from the head of a toothbrush, a small vibrating motor, and a watch battery, thousands of youth around the U.S. devised ways to clean up a simulated toxic spill on Oct. 10 in the "Eco-Bot Challenge," the 2012 experiment selected for this year's National Science Experiment for 4-H National Youth Science Day.
The experiment is designed to get the engineering juices flowing among the participants, said Bob Horton, Ohio 4-H specialist who created the challenge.
"We're getting them to think like engineers," said Horton, who is a professor and 4-H Extension specialist in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education. "There is a step-by-step process that engineers use, and we're mimicking that in this particular experiment."
Last year, more than 750 National Science Experiment events were held around the country. This year, one of the sites was in Columbus at the Nationwide and Ohio Farm Bureau 4-H Center.
During the first hour, 100 seventh- and eighth-graders from "STEM Middle@Baldwin Road," the STEM academy housed in Reynoldsburg City Schools' Baldwin Road Junior High School, took the Eco-Bot Challenge. Then they met with Ohio State engineering students to share their results and talk about the ideas they came up with during the experiment.
The experiment worked like this: Birdseed or rice was spread over a mat to depict a toxic spill on a beach. To prevent harm to human cleanup workers, authorities wanted to use Eco-Bots to attempt to clean up the spill. Eco-Bots are simple robots that move forward when they are turned on but can't be programmed remotely. Participants had to find ways to restrict and redirect the Eco-Bots’ movements over the toxic spill to clean up as much of it as possible.
Simple, inexpensive, easy to assemble
Horton got the idea for the experiment after seeing "BristleBots" designed by Windell Oskay of Evil Mad Scientist Laboratory.
"I saw that and started thinking, what could we do with that? It's simple, inexpensive, and easy to put together." Eventually, the Eco-Bot Challenge was born.
Horton and Sally McClaskey, Ohio 4-H Youth Development program coordinator, pilot-tested the experiment at 4-H camps and other summer programs, and were continually surprised at the inventiveness of participants.
"They might find that they're cleaning up only 30 percent of the spill in two minutes," Horton said. "So they say, 'Maybe I'll add on a blade, or maybe I'll add wings onto the side. Or maybe I'll even take the motor and battery and put it on top of the cup.' The amount of invention is endless.
"They use the materials available -- basically just straws and paper cups -- and take the challenge further than I could have imagined."
'They come up with so much on their own'
McClaskey said the experiment is a great illustration of how 4-H works.
"It's that hands-on experimenting," she said. "We're not just telling them about how you'd clean up a toxic spill, or tell them about how engineers work. They're going through the process themselves.
"Science experiments tend to be very prescriptive -- do this step, then this step, then this one. But this experiment is so inventive for kids. They come up with so much on their own -- so many different versions and adaptations, every time."
Horton has developed science curricula for Ohio 4-H since the 1990s. He also created the experiment used in the first 4-H National Youth Science Day Experiment in 2008, which involved examining the hydrogel in baby diapers to examine what makes them so absorbent.
"What we hope is that these types of challenges encourage the development of thinking and processing skills," Horton said. "The participants have to analyze, invent, problem-solve, and collaborate. They're building those skill sets, which they will carry with them long after they've forgotten the experiment."
Teachers and others who work with youth can order the Eco-Bot Challenge kit from National 4-H through mid-2013 here, under Education Resources.
-- Martha Filipic, Communications and Technology