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The Lancaster Science Factory is a big downtown location for school groups and other youngsters – with over 60 unique kid’s exhibits, this landmark is part of a revitalized commercial block on New Holland Pike.

Inside, along with a whole lot of other interesting interactive stuff, the Science Factory currently has a working robot named Baxter, who shows kids how robotics works first-hand.

Caption: Kids watch Baxter at work

Image Source: The Lancaster Science Factory

On loan from the Thaddeus Stevens School of Technology, Baxter (known at the college as “Thad”) is meant to get kids interested in STEM fields and technical studies, by giving them a glimpse of what cutting-edge robotic technology can do. In a February blog post, College President William Griscom talks about the potential for the robotics program to help young learners “hone their skills” in tech.

School groups come from the majority of Lancaster County school districts, and from other further areas of the state, like Hershey and Downington to see Baxter the robot at work, nestled among the other various installations in the museum.

Baxter’s Job

Amirr Strojnyk, a Thaddeus Stevens intern, manages the Baxter robot presentation for visitors. The robot, Strojnyk says, has a range of motion that allows it to move its arms to sort full and half-full water bottles by weight. A scale near Baxter is attached to a programmable logic controller; the controller sends Baxter a signal indicating weight, by which Baxter knows whether to send a bottle into one of two chutes.

“He’s doing quality control.” Strojnyk says.

A Safe Environment

Part of the idea of the Baxter program, Strojnyk says, is to introduce kids to robotics in a safe and controlled way. In his presentations, Strojnyk likes to contrast Baxter’s work in the Science Factory with a similar robotic task on a real industrial work floor: as Baxter works, a video screen on the wall shows robots operating in real manufacturing situations.

Baxter, Strojnyk says, is safer than an industrial robot, exerting very little force. Not to mention the absence of other machines, rough materials and chaotic environments that visitors encounter at the average job site.

“Baxter allows kids at the Science Factory to get an understanding of what robots are about, in a safe place.” Strojnyk says.

The Nuts and Bolts

In addition, says Strojnyk, the Science Factory environment helps him to explain key aspects of Baxter’s technology to kids. After breaking down the basics, Strojnyk will talk about things like input/output, using a nearby installation to show how robotic parts are like parts of the human body. An exhibit called “cubelets” features small items that each have a unique function. A battery is like the “brain.” A light sensor is “the eyes.” These elements help kids to understand that it’s not magic helping Baxter to “think,” but a collection of processes enabled by hardware.

Accessible Tech

Programs like this one are introducing today’s children to the world they are going to inhabit years from now, a world of “smart homes,” driverless cars, and cloud-supported communications. By understanding the basics of robotics, more students get prepared to buy, handle, administrate and care for the hardware they will use later in life, and to get interested in careers where talent is sorely needed. In many ways, Baxter and his handlers are pioneers in a new kind of education, one that centers on experiential knowledge, and not a textbook. -sjs

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