News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Local & Bistate

October 11, 2012

Fifth-grade ‘engineers’ tackle ‘toxic’ cleanup with the help of a little robot

TERRE HAUTE — Toxic waste has spilled on an island, but it’s too dangerous for humans to touch, so fifth graders at Farrington Grove Elementary School must turn to science.

While a small cardboard square is the island and the toxin is actually rice, students in Donna Rockwood’s fifth grade class used a toothbrush, a cell phone motor, a small circular battery and double sided tape to create a robotic cleanup Wednesday.

“They have to design control measures to keep the robot in place to clean up the spill. It is a design process, so they generate ideas and build a prototype and then test it and tell their story. It’s a hands-on experiment and engineer design process,” said Sarah Gaughan, extension associate with Purdue Extension-Vigo County.

Gaughan, along with Krista Farthing, Purdue Extension educator, guided the students on how to assemble their “robot.” Students used just the brush section of a new toothbrush, then used double-sided tape for the motor and battery.

When assembled, the brush vibrates across the cardboard island, pushing rice (the toxin) away from black areas on the island.

“It’s cool,” said Jalen Henderson.

“Yeah, it’s awesome,” said teammate Luka Popoff.

Students were placed into three-member teams to assemble the robot, and then think of ways to keep the robot in a designated cleanup area. Materials to do that included straws, popsicle sticks, small plastic cups, tape and paper clips.

A team comprised of Matthew Haraway, Melissa Chavez and Devin Taylor decided to ring the island with plastic cups, then created a fence with wooden popsicle sticks.

“It’s just the amazing brain right here that came up with this,” Taylor said, pointing to his forehead.

“He’s not as smart as he thinks he is,” retorts teammate Chavez with a smile.

Rockwood said the experiment is ideal for her students.

“It gets them excited about science. I am thrilled to have community involvement, especially with budget cuts to schools, we need things like this,” Rockwood said. “You can tell they really enjoy it, as everyone is on task. No one is asking to go to the bathroom and their heads are bent over concentrating on the project.

“I think this is a confidence builder as well. They feel like they did this,” Rockwood added.

Once containment areas were made, Farthing used a stop watch to time students as the robotic brush was placed on the island. The brush would push rice away from blackened areas on the island. Students had two minutes for the cleanup, but if the “robot” fell over, they could not touch it for three seconds. Also, if it got stuck, they could not touch it for three seconds.

When time was up, she asked students to count the number of small squares in each black area on the island that contained no rice (toxin). Some groups counted more than 70 squares.

Students were then asked how they could improve their containment design and given a few minutes to make the changes. It was then back to the three-minute robot clean up.

Jaelea Coleman, teammate with Henderson and Popoff, said by using rolled Scotch tape and placing it under their containment straws, it prevented the robot from becoming stuck.

“It’s much better,” Coleman said. “It’s fun to do.”

The program was part of the National 4-H Science Day Experiment. The Purdue Extension’s 4-H Youth Development program supplied the materials and associates, who conducted the experiment during three different class hours at Farrington Grove Elementary at 1826 S. Sixth St. in Terre Haute.

Howard Greninger can be reached at 812-231-4204 or

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