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WSU’s On Solid Ground- 4-H Robotics, Wasps

Posted by l.meyer | August 29, 2013

4-H Robotics Teams Build Successful Futures

Communication. Cooperation. Teamwork. These are not words that 9- and 10-year-olds frequently use without prompting, but at the Clarkston 4-H robotics camp in July, all three life skills were fully exercised. Kelsey McNabb, a WSU Human Development and Psychology major and intern with Janet Schmidt, Whitman County Extension director and regional 4-H specialist, organized the camp.

SeaTech’s Eurybia team members (grades 6-10) show off their team spirit and their submersible robot.
SeaTech’s Eurybia team members (grades 6-10) show off their team spirit and their submersible robot.

Using mostly standard Lego components, the kids started by building mini solar panels and wind turbines. On the second day they designed a robot, controlled by a computer program, to approach a model cow, pick it up, and move it to a new pasture. Then they created machines for “sumo bot wrestling,” where two opposing robots try to push each other out of a circle. On the final day of camp, the families were invited to see presentations by the children and learn what they had been doing.

Education Innovation

If this sounds like fun and games, it is—but with serious long-term applications. Robotics introduces kids to the fundamental education concepts of STEM: science, technology, engineering, and math. “By using robotics, they get to experiment with computer programming, they have to use math skill to calculate bot travel distance, and they get to use engineering to design and build the robots,” said McNabb. “This gives them hands-on activities they aren’t typically exposed to in the classroom.”

Schmidt noted that McNabb added a lot of creativity to the program. “She was able to learn the robotics and develop activities in advance.” When the kids got stuck, she could work with them and suggest a part replacement or new technique. Each day was filled with motivated critical thinking and problem solving based on structured play.

The lessons weren’t lost on 10-year-old McKenna Noland, who already builds with Legos at home with her brother. She found computer programming with the drag-and-drop Mindstorms software to be the best part of the project. Nine-year-old Zane Leslie professed his love for building bots, as well as his desire to come back next year. Since he also builds with Legos at home, he can apply his newly gained knowledge in the off season.

Winning Big

With Schmidt now in her third year of leading a county robotics program, she is seeing the skills growing among the local First Lego League (FLL) teams for kids aged 9–14. This past year, two Whitman County 4-H FLL teams won at a regional competition and qualified for the statewide competition.

Other 4-H robotics teams are also competing well. From Skagit County, the SeaTech 4-H underwater robotics club advanced all the way to the international level. At this summer’s Marine Advanced Technology Education (MATE) competition, the collegiate team scored first in Pool Missions, where their robot had to perform underwater tasks that simulated real-world situations. And the team captain, Stanley Janicki, won the Marty Klein MATE Mariner award for recognizing practical applications and exhibiting passion for the field of marine science and technology.

As 4-H participants build robots, they are also building technical and social skills and seeing their wins in competition translate into wins later in life. “Successful experiences as a youth carry through to successful experiences as an adult,” said Schmidt. 4-H members have a higher rate of participation in college because they’ve developed the skills necessary to succeed academically and beyond. And that’s something worth building.

Learn more about WSU 4-H:

-Bob Hoffmann

Close Encounters of the Wasp Kind

Squeezing in the last moments of fun in the sun means sharing space with wasp colonies at their peak size. So before you follow through with the urge to swat at a yellowjacket crawling toward that spilled ice tea or platter of grilled hamburgers, consider that it could unleash a flying armada of angry co-workers.

When a yellowjacket is smashed, its venom sac releases an alarm chemical that alerts nearby guard wasps to come and defend, according to Peter Landolt, a research entomologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Yakima and adjunct WSU faculty member.


Even the process of stinging releases the signal, inciting more wasps to give chase

With 15 different species in Washington State alone, wasps are seen hovering over grass, landing atop bird feeders, and scuttling across picnic tables more and more at this time of year. They’re not seeking people to attack, explained Landolt. Instead, they’re searching for food and water for the developing larvae being cared for at the nest.

“August and September are typically when encounters with humans go up. I like to tell people that it’s helpful to understand why wasps behave the way they do to reduce those kinds of encounters,” said Landolt. In 1987 he discovered wasps’ nifty alarm chemical signal, which is a type of pheromone. He has since designed commercial and do-it-yourself traps with food-based chemical attractants to reduce wasp numbers in areas where people congregate.

Ouch Factor


Wasp stings are a fairly legitimate reason for grown men and women to yelp and even scream. Unlike a honeybee that only stings once, a wasp can repeatedly plunge its stinger into a subject’s skin, injecting more venom each time. Besides scaring the wits out of us, “stings can be painful and, in some circumstances, dangerous,” said Landolt, especially if someone is allergic to the venom or is stung numerous times by a swarm.

But painful encounters can often be avoided, making it a win-win for humans and the wasps trying to raise their young and protect their colonies. And though it may surprise those of us who’ve been on the receiving end of a wasp’s stinger, these insects play a respectable role on the planet by eating caterpillars, flies, and other bugs that damage certain trees, crops, and garden plants.

Name That Wasp

It helps to know which wasp species is buzzing about, said Landolt. The Northwest is home to lots of yellowjackets and paper wasps, which, with their yellow and black markings, look similar to the untrained eye but are dissimilar in a number of ways.

Because paper wasps are less aggressive when threatened and build much smaller nests, they’re generally less dangerous than yellowjackets, Landolt said. They construct small umbrella-shaped nests with exposed combs inside or underneath eaves, pipes, window casings, awnings, and other unexpected sites. (Landolt recently discovered a paper wasp nest under the gas cap cover of his Ford Bronco.)

By contrast, most yellowjackets build their nests in the ground, including inside rodent burrows. The enclosed structures, resembling drab-colored Japanese lanterns, are designed to hold many more occupants than those of paper wasps. “Serious encounters arise when a human gets too close to a nest or accidently steps on one,” said Landolt.

bald-faced-hornet-nest-300“Serious encounters arise when a human gets too close to a nest or accidently steps on one,” said Landolt.

Bald-faced hornets–which curiously are wasps and not hornets–are also found in this region. Identified by their ivory and black-colored markings and stripes, they build large, bloated football-shaped nests attached to trees and shrub branches. Like yellowjackets, bald-faced hornets mount coordinated, persistent assaults on perceived invaders.

Wrapping Up Appearances

Paper wasps, yellowjackets, and bald-faced hornets all produce new colonies each year. Except for a few wasps that might sneak into the warmth of a home, only the mated queens survive the cold months of winter. About the time you need to pull on a jacket, all those wasps poking about in gardens and crash-landing on open soda cans will be gone.

So if possible, keep your cool around wasps and they will likely do you a favor by eating your insect pests. However, if wasps pose a stinging risk because of their nests’ proximity to people, “by all means, do something about it,” Landolt said.

To learn about your options for dealing with these dualistic insects, see Yellowjackets and Paper Wasps, written by Landolt and fellow entomologist Arthur L. Antonelli, at the WSU Extension Online Store. 

-Linda Weiford

This story was adapted from the August 14, 2013, issue of WSU News.