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The robot zone exhibit at the Potsdam Summer Festival sounded completely different than the band that was warming up in the nearby gazebo. The noises came from a variety of robots, some of which were made of colorful Legos. Little kids with remotes made them do simple things.
“Today I’m working the first robotics booth. The kids today are loving it. Like all the kids, they come up, they want to play with the controllers, they want to drive the robot around, they want to shoot the balls, they want to catch the balls, they want to do everything. So far they're just having tons of fun," said John Seaman, a Clarkson University student volunteering at the exhibit.
As the robots pushed hockey pucks around, Dr. James Carroll came over. He is an associate professor at Clarkson and he runs the robotics outreach programs there. He said, “When we did the Potsdam Summer Festival last year, I met some folks that were interested in starting a children’s museum in Potsdam. So we got together and discussed ways in which we could integrate a robotics zone into this overall concept and because we have been doing robotics outreach for some time now, we were featured as the first museum without walls.”
The museum without walls is a preview of what’s to come. Organizers hope to open the museum in downtown Potsdam in the fall of 2015. Sharon Williams is the co-chair, and she said, “We have had just tremendous feedback. As soon as we let it out and told different departments, community members, institutions, we have had so many people just step out of the woodwork, happy to help, donate, volunteer time and materials and it’s been amazingly receptive. I think anyone who’s got young kids in the area knows that there isn’t a lot going on culturally for kids on an ongoing basis in this area, and this is really going to fill a much-needed gap.”
However, for now, it’s just a museum without walls travelling around the North Country. They’ll have more exhibits at the Clarkson bookstore in the fall. The idea is to give kids a place to learn through doing. One of the booths at the robotics exhibit was a prime example: it was called the Green City Challenge, and it used Lego robots to explore sustainable energy systems. Nearby sat a square silver robot that’s four or five feet tall is sitting out in the sun. Kids used a videogame controller to tell it to shoot basketballs.
The kids were incredibly focused as they guided these machines; some of them didn’t want to leave. And when they did walk back to their parents, they were sure to grab a few souvenirs: Children’s Museum logo bracelets, Clarkson sunglasses and temporary tattoos. These kids will be three years older when the museum opens in 2015, but most of them will still be in primary school.
Sharon Williams was a public schoolteacher for 10 years and currently teaches in the education department at SUNY Potsdam. She said, “I know, just with budget cuts to schools, that so much of it gets – so many of the extras and the real kind of things that tap into creative and critical thinking get, you know, their funds taken away. So this is a real opportunity to have a permanent space where kids get to know that learning and deep learning is beyond a standardized test and filling in a bubble."
Sharon and the rest of the museum’s board started planning and fundraising last year. Today, the buzzing robots draw families in. But the museum will eventually have eight more exhibits that will let kids explore topics ranging from Akwesasne/Mohawk culture to a natural foods supermarket.