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All ages get in on the fun at the Lipscomb Nissan Robotics Camps

Janel Shoun-Smith  | 

Lipscomb University senior uses his own engineering skills to help make camp more fun for youngsters

The universal appeal of robots and how to build them has been Lipscomb University’s Raymond B. Jones College of Engineering’s secret weapon for 12 years now to draw children of all ages to become more interested in science and engineering.

More than 140 children from age 6 to high schoolers are participating as campers and counselors this summer in 2018’s six sessions of Lipscomb/Nissan Robotics Camp’s from June 11 to July 20. And this year a Lipscomb undergraduate student, Quentin Navarro, a senior in mechanical engineering from Nashville, is joining the fun as he has re-built the conveyor belts used annually by the Fundamentals Robotics Camp in their finale competition.

Over the years, the fundamentals camp for ages 9-14 has already used up two sets of conveyor belt mechanisms, which were predominantly made of wood, difficult to store and not often so reliable on finale day. Campers use robotics arms they have built during the week to compete by placing blocks, or “recyclable materials,” on the conveyor belt to travel to the “recycling plant.”

“They are big, bulky and awkward to store,” said John Hutson, chair of the electrical and computer engineering department, and coordinator of the fundamentals camp which involved 41 campers this year. ‘Keeping the belts centered on the track and keeping them maintained was an issue.”

So Samuel Wright, the engineering college’s lab manager and a Lipscomb alumnus, and his summer student worker Navarro stepped in to create a conveyor belt that is more durable and can be taken apart in pieces that are easier to store.

The pair decided to use some aluminum left over from another project to build two conveyor belts machines. Aluminum is sturdy, but makes the machine light enough to be carried by hand. It is versatile and easy to use, Wright said.

Navarro said this is the first chance he has had to do every step of a project, from design to reality, on his own (with Wright’s guidance).

“I have done the math and calculations before in class, but things like choosing the right belt size, the type of screws to use, where exactly should I drill? That’s all new territory for me,” Navarro said.

He had to make design choices that would keep the conveyor belt from hanging up or squealing during operation and build everything himself in the college’s machine and innovation labs in the Fields Engineering Center.

Pre-teen campers can become pretty anxious when their cube bounces off the belt and they aren’t sure if it will count towards their points to win the game, Hutson said. So the new custom-built machines diminished those worries during this year’s finale on July 13, he said.

Each finale of the summer robotics camps are exciting times for local STEM-loving kids. Nissan, the sponsor of Lipscomb’s summer robotics camps since 2010, sends out engineers and engineering interns to interact with the kids on finale day. Parents arrive to watch each age group show off their creations, and Nissan vehicles are on hand for the kids to explore.

Older campers compete in a football-style game where they scoop, drop or push balls into the competitor’s zone. Tween campers compete with the robotic arms and conveyor belts, and younger campers hold a show-and-tell session for their parents. Ice cream and awards cap off the day.

Since 2010, Nissan has donated more than $580,000 in total to fund the summer Lipscomb/Nissan BisonBot Robotics Camps and the annual Music City BEST (Boosting Engineering, Science and Technology) competition held in the fall.

During this year’s summer camps, participants are touring the Nissan plant in Smyrna and the St. Thomas Hospital robotic surgical suite, as well as learning the basics of engineering and other valuable STEM concepts, sometimes from Nissan engineers who stop by to help during the week. Campers learn about electrical circuits, batteries, switches, DC motors, programming and robotic arm- and hand-actuators, among other things.

In some years, Nissan and the engineering college have partnered with local aid organizations to hold robotics camps for underserved middle schoolers as a service project to the community.

“At each camp, we interweave our classroom and hands-on time throughout the whole week,” said Greg Nordstrom, professor of electrical and computer engineering and another robotics camp coordinator. “They learn a little bit of theory and then they go and get their hands dirty doing stuff.

“Nissan is very involved throughout the camp. There is always an element of career building and our Nissan reps will always talk to campers about what it is like to work at Nissan and how and why they became an engineer themselves,” he said. “We do all of that because we believe that kids need to not only see the theory and do some practice on their own, they need models to talk to them about how they got where they are.”