Students Match Skills With Puzzling Robot at Science & Engineering Festival

Among the thousands of middle school students at the second annual Dow Great Lakes Bay Science & Engineering Festival, Brock Atkins was special. He defeated a robot.

The two-day festival featured chemical reactions, flying contraptions, burning concoctions and a seemingly limitless collection of other demonstrations in the gym and surrounding hallways of Delta College, near Dow’s headquarters in Midland, Mich. More than 3,500 students and chaperones registered for Day 1, swarming the displays in rolling waves of excitement and discovery, while Day 2 was an opportunity for the public to experience the fun.

Part of Dow’s display featured a robotic arm programmed to complete a puzzle made up of pieces in the shape of numbers, which had to be assembled in numerical order. An identical puzzle was nearby for students to race the robot in a frenzied battle of human versus machine. One by one, the students tried their luck, most of them scrambling through the puzzle in a frazzle as the robot coolly and quietly picked up pieces and put them in place.

When Brock got to the front of the line, however, the robot’s good fortune ran out. An eighth-grader at Christa McAuliffe Middle School in Bay City, Mich., Brock likes tennis, jogging and engineering. And he had a plan.

“I tried to memorize the colors and the shapes of the pieces,” Brock said after defeating the robot, a rare occurrence. “It was no big deal.”

The robot was operated by a group from Dow’s Information Research team, which handles a variety of technology tasks in support of the company’s operations. Matt Ninke and Lyle McCarty were on hand to not only run the exhibit, but to talk to students about the many ways Dow uses technology -- and the many jobs available to people with the right skills.

“Our team wrote the software for this robot,” Ninke said. “It uses machine vision. It can actually see the numbers.”

Spending a day in a gym filled with shrieking middle schoolers isn’t everyone’s idea of a dream assignment, but Ninke said he was glad to pitch in.

“These kids are the future,” Ninke said. “Dow’s done so much for us. It’s a great place to work. So this is kind of giving back a little.”

Ashley Dennis, a graduate of Michigan’s Roscommon High School who is a senior at Michigan Technological University and a member of the college’s Mind Trekkers group, performs the Fire Tornado demonstration for students at the Dow Great Lakes Bay Science & Engineering Festival.

Robots constructed for the FIRST Robotics competition fling a variety of balls and flying discs into the crowd at the Dow Great Lakes Bay Science & Engineering Festival.

Dowbot, the company’s high-tech STEM education ambassador, rolls through the waves of visitors at the Dow Great Lakes Bay Science & Engineering Festival, making friends and influencing young minds.