For the young roboticists at Saturday's Robot Parade and Lego Block Party, the plastic toy bricks were good for more than stacking - they were the building blocks of basic programming skills.
The Capital Mall event, co-sponsored by the Cole County 4-H Tech Club and S and L Robotics, let children demonstrate their programming chops through the Lego robots they had designed.
Under their creators' watchful eyes, the robots crawled around a rectangular track, guided by a strip of black tape that ran the length of the course. Many of the children had added custom decorations to their vehicles: lego block characters, aircraft made from K'Nex pieces and dueling action figures.
Tessa Uhlmann, 13, was one of several 4-H participants with a robot in the parade. Her creation was a Pokemon-themed vehicle. Uhlmann has been involved with robotics for several years but said this was her first experience with programming.
"It's pretty hard, but once you get most of it down it's easy," she said.
Uhlmann said the robots used two types of sensors to navigate the course: a light sensor that allows them to follow the taped line and an ultrasonic sensor that determines how far away other robots are.
Annette Alberts, head of the 4-H Tech Club's robotics program, said students in the club had about eight weeks to work on their robots. Although the task - to program a robot
capable of traveling around the track unassisted - was the same for all of the children, the required skills varied by age and experience. Younger children worked with a picture-oriented programming language called NXT-G to program their creations, while older children used ROBOTC, a more advanced text-based language.
"It allowed a variety of levels to participate and have fun together," Alberts said.
Jenny Flatt, a 4-H youth specialist at the event, praised Alberts' dedication to enhancing the robotics program.
"She really took her group and decided to not make it just about robotics, she expanded it to technology," Flatt said.
Flatt said one of the most important aspects of the event was establishing the local 4-H program, which is part of the University of Missouri Extension, as a place to learn about technology.
"We're excited in Cole County," she said. "A lot of people think of Cole County and think cows and agriculture. It's about so much more than that."
For Alberts, one of the main inspirations for the parade was the lack of robotics competitions in the area. She wanted to organize an event that would let the students showcase their work without the fees of a traditional competition.
And her students will have future opportunities to demonstrate their skills as well. Next March, Alberts' club plans to attend Robofest, a competition in which students program robots to complete tasks without the aid of a remote.
In addition to learning about robotics, children at Saturday's event participated in a Lego party, which offered buckets of Lego blocks and countless opportunities for creativity.
Cindy Stegemann, who attended the Lego party with her three grandchildren, said she first heard about the event in the newspaper and decided to bring her family along.
"It sounded like fun, and it was something for free. Everyone always likes that," she said.