East Grand Middle School Robotics Club tackles technology
February 16, 2017
From smart phones to drones, apps to software, the world of computerized technology is becoming more and more fundamental to our existence. Over the past several years educators have begun employing a new buzzword related to this reality, STEM. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math and most experts believe the majority of new jobs created in the coming decades will touch upon one or more of those fields.
However, getting kids excited about studying the complex and demanding subjects of STEM can be difficult. To that end, the East Grand Middle School has developed a program to pique the interest of youngsters, the Robotics Club. East Grand technology teacher Missy Quinn and science teacher Rebecca Chernin head up the Middle School Robotics Club, which is typically held on Wednesday nights after school.
The Robotics Club is based on a tinkering approach. The children often act as their own teachers through a trial-and-error process. The students typically work in groups of two or three when designing and building the robots.
"We want them to use their own creativity and work through the challenges," Quinn said. "We are here more in a support role than a teaching role."
Students design and build their own robots using Lego Robotics kits. The kits do not come pre-assembled and the students must create their robots from a hodgepodge of various parts. Quinn said most students create the base of their robot and then add motors. Multiple motors must be installed on each robot to run wheels, arms and any other moving features.
The entire process creates a unique atmosphere for the youngsters at East Grand.
"This is a great opportunity for our students. They are really excited to build robots and extremely engaged in the process," said Middle School principal Jenny Rothboeck. "It makes learning really fun."
The design and initial construction phase for the robots usually takes the students three to four weeks. Afterwards students try out their creations in robot battles.
"The battle area is a place for them to test their robots," Quinn said. "They can see what they need to add in terms of new functions and what they need to fix."
After an initial battle phase, the students move on to the challenge section of the program. The challenge section of the club involves a maze students must program their robots to navigate. This year Quinn and Chernin added an additional layer to the challenge, requiring the robots to pick up and carry a small item with a robotic arm within the maze.
Each robot battle features two student-created robots. The goal of the battle is to flip the opponent over or to push them outside of the battle area. The battles test the robot designs in ways the maze does not.
"The battles challenge their design," Quinn said. "If they lose a battle they have to think, 'What can I do to my design to prevent that from happening?' They are thinking about how to enhance their design to make it better."
Quinn added there is an emphasis placed on good sportsmanship during and after the battles.
"We are teaching them to work in a competitive environment in a respectful way," she said.
The robots designed by the students can be controlled remotely, but usually require two different controllers: one operating the robots wheels and one operating any tools used for battling, such as a flipper or an arm. Quinn said the robots often receive a bit of damage during the battles, but it is easily repaired by the students.
"It is not very often they destroy the whole thing," Quinn said. "Usually it just needs little fixes. They may need to make sure an arm can't be knocked off as they are battling."
Quinn said the Club hopes to hold a robot battle tournament this year to provide the club students with an opportunity to show their work off to their fellow students.
PAST AND FUTURE
This is the second year of existence for the Robotics Club. Each year, the club holds two eight-week sessions. For the fall session this school year, Quinn said she had 30 students participating in the program with about 20 in the spring session. Queen said reduced participation numbers in the spring result from more students participating in sports.
The idea for the East Grand Robotics Club developed out of a teacher in-service conference Quinn attended a few years back.
"I was pretty passionate about this," Quinn said. "I thought it was something the kids here would enjoy so I wrote a grant to the East Grand Education Foundation for robotics kits and funding to support the program."
Moving forward, Quinn said she hopes the club will return for years to come and highlighted the funding challenges such extracurricular activities face. Quinn added the program would likely begin charging a club fee, similar to athletics fees, in future years for participating students.