0112 JBMA robot kids
It all starts with LEGOs: The Joseph Bruno Montessori Academy Lego Robotics Team placed second at its regional qualifier on Dec. 1. Kneeling: Elizabeth Bray. Front row: Ashton Tyler-Dudley, Deven Patel, Will Davis, Hannah Bray, Bela Patel and Soha Rasool. Back row: Katie Maxfield, Davis Tyler-Dudley and Thomas Rooney. Photo by Jeff Thompson.
Some high school students are pushing themselves to their limits. They spend hours on the practice field, their test runs becoming test marathons. They end their evenings with dirty hands and tired brains. They rinse and repeat – all for one run at victory.
It isn’t a traditional sport that’s driving them – it’s robotics.
Students attending schools in the 280 corridor are seeing an increased focus on robotics programs, and a culture of engineering is blossoming. It goes hand-in-hand with a national push for education in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). In 2012 alone, Congress considered 30 bills that promote and forward these programs in public education systems.
Locally, engineering classes are popping up in middle and elementary schools, including Berry and Oak Mountain. These feeder programs awaken interest in STEM fields for some young students and drive them toward joining and dedicating themselves to “varsity” programs at the secondary level – students like Matthew Parent, a 17-year-old senior member of the Oak Mountain High School Robotics Club.
“Of course, it all started with LEGOs,” he said.
For many others, that’s exactly where it begins. Engineering competitions using LEGO building blocks weren’t around when Parent was moving through the system, but now younger students can join teams of toy bricklayers.
On Dec. 1, the Joseph Bruno Montessori Academy (JBMA) Lego Robotics team, called EGGO My LEGO, took second place from a field of nine at the Central Alabama FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Lego League Qualifier held at the school.
The team, comprised of 11 students ages 10-13, prepared for months for the contest, working on both their robot and a corresponding research project themed “Senior Solutions.”
“It’s preparing them for life,” said Dr. Nathaniel Bray, a volunteer with the JBMA program. “These students really have to learn that’s it’s not just about building a robot, but about developing skills for problem solving. We don’t all have the skill sets we need when we start, but we learn it along the way.”
Case in point: What do you do when, at the last minute, your robot needs a new part?
At its regional competition in December, the Spain Park Robotics Team was facing disqualification for drilling holes in a plastic pulley on their robot. They had worked for months perfecting their machine and the stage was set before an audience of thousands. Suddenly, they had no more than 20 minutes to find a solution.
Spain Park’s robotics program is comprised of 122 Engineering Academy students. From their freshman years on, many participate annually in the BEST Competition (Boosting Engineering, Science and Technology). They have two rounds of competition, the first is Blazer BEST at UAB, and the second is South’s BEST Regional at Auburn University, which was also held this year on Dec. 1.
“BEST is a six-week competition in which students design and build a robot from a given set of materials,” said Engineering Academy teacher Dr. Scottie Wilson. “It’s a time-intensive commitment, requiring students to meet after school three to four days each week.”
Looking around at the near-packed stands in Auburn’s Coliseum, Spain Park borrowed a wooden disc from the Briarwood Christian Robotics Team and fashioned a replacement moments before taking the field. Although the team’s drivers had spent up to 20 hours a week practicing the run, this was now an untested machine, and they had no idea how well it would hold up.
Turns out, pretty well.
South’s BEST featured the top 56 schools from 18 different regions east of the Mississippi River. Spain Park placed third in Robotics and was awarded Most Elegant Robot and Most Robust Robot. They also took home first place for Formal Marketing Presentation and third place for Team Exhibit and Interview.
The Oak Mountain High Robotics Club was awarded third place in Spirit and Sportsmanship from South’s BEST 2012. Much like the Jaguar team, Oak Mountain students spent hours outside of school perfecting their robot and the multiple projects that go with it – only their facilities aren’t the same.
The OMHS Club meets at the home of Dawn Clemons, whose son, Justin, 18, is team president. Since facilities aren’t available at the school, almost all work is done outside school walls.
“We pretty much live at his house,” said senior Madison Fisher.
The Club boasts members from other high schools in the area that don’t have a team of their own. It even has home school students on its roster of more than 30. For months of the year, they fill the Clemons’ house on nights and weekends. There, students take the project from concept to prototype to working robot, all with little more than oversight from parents and sponsors.
“It is the most amount of stress I’ve ever been through, and my grades dropped because of it,” Justin Clemons said. “But it’s been amazing. Going into high school, I really wanted to be doctor. But by my second year on the robotics team, I didn’t know anymore. I decided on biomedical sciences, because it’s kind of the best of both worlds.”
By senior year, many students in Spain Park’s Engineering Academy lean toward studying technical fields in college. Senior Camden Cutright, who said he intends to major in chemical engineering, said like many of the students now in the Academy, he started as a freshman working on the Presentation portion of the BEST competition. From there, he moved into competition strategy and, by sophomore year, he was a designer. And he was hooked.
“Coupling rigorous book work with the hands-on experience from the Academy I think can really help train people for the college level more, but it also gives them an idea of what they want to do. It gives you four years to kind of give it a sneak peek,” he said.
That sneak peek was enough for senior Kelsie Williams, 18, to look into an engineering field for her future as well.
“When I got into the Engineering Academy, I really didn’t have any intention of carrying it out after high school. I was stuck on psychology and all that stuff,” she said. “But I got involved my junior year with the actual BEST Competition, and through that process I thought, “‘I can do this for a living.’”
Starting early means giving students experience with a future they may just find fascinating. So, while students are building robots, schools are building the next generation of robot builders.