Salt River Elementary School instructor Angelo Fernando is back coaching the Titans, the school Robotics Team, and is preparing for a new year with many new faces. Two students are returning from last year, but the rest are all new members. “We [have had three] meetings so far, getting everyone on board,” said Fernando.
The team participates in regional robotics competitions and the national FIRST® Lego® League (FLL), a robotics program for nine- to 14-year-olds that is designed to get children excited about science and technology and teach them valuable employment and life skills. Every September, FLL releases a Challenge for all the school robotics teams in the league based on a real-world scientific topic. Teams of up to 10 children, with one adult coach, participate in the Challenge by programming an autonomous robot, constructed of Legos, to score points on a themed playing field (the Robot Game), developing a solution to a problem they have identified (the Project).
The League has announced the 2012 Challenge, Senior Solutions, exploring innovative and creative ways robotics and technology can meet the needs of adults 60 and older. Last year’s Challenge, Food Factor, dealt with ways to prevent food contamination and spoilage, and in 2010, students designed and programmed robots for the Body Forward Challenge to help people solve health-related problems.
Teams have downloaded the specifications for their missions and have begun to program and build their robots.
The Senior Solutions Challenge and working with an older population is something new for the robotics students. “On one level, it might sound very boring to a kid, but on the other hand they have grandparents, aunts and uncles whom they can discuss this issue with,” said Fernando.
All together there are 20 students in the robotics club. Because each team can have a maximum of 10 students, this year SRES has two teams, a girls team and a boys team. The teams will challenge each other, and they have not seen each other’s projects yet.
Programming the robot is the most complicated part of the Challenge because students have to program the robot to move, turn, back up or pick up an object. “We have been teaching them more about programming this year,” said Fernando. “We are going to make the students pick one of the missions and perfect it as they go.”
Arizona State University is coordinating a robotics scrimmage event in October, and there is another regional tournament in November. Team Titans also hopes to participate in other events.
A High Level of Interest
“I am very excited because I think we have filtered [down to] the most interested [students], and I can see that it’s the accumulated effect of the Robotics Club and the publicity it got from the Community,” said Fernando. “I think it is a cool activity to be involved in.”
Students must apply to be a member of the club, attend an in-person interview and also take a test. All of this ensures that the students who complete the process are very interested in participating.
“Technology is a lifetime commitment, and we don’t want students to feel they can just wing it to become a member of the club,” Fernando said. “Both groups are very interested in learning how to build and program the robots.”
The teams currently meet once a week, but as the Senior Solutions Challenge gets into the details, they will meet three times a week.
Intel has been instrumental in helping to develop the Titans and other school robotics clubs in the state. Thanks to their support, there will be 20 to 30 new teams in Arizona competing against the SRES Titans. It seems like it’s going to be impossible to win at any of the robotics competitions, but the teams are taught that winning is not the most important thing.
Preparing for Careers of the Future
To prepare students for the technology of the future, there is a big push nationwide in the STEM disciplines: Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. “We need to keep up with the fast-paced technology that’s all around the world,” Fernando said.
“I can actually see this being a class one day,” said Fernando. “My ulterior motive is to have the students that come through the Robotics Club go further [with science and technology] and understand computer science further.”
Fernando tells the students that by the time they get to college they will most likely not be using the computers that they are working with today to build the robots.
“My job is to teach them to work on the future. I want their learning to grow broader and to start thinking outside the box,” said Fernando. “Across the sea, the technology is more advanced than it is here in America. We have to move and keep up with technology, and robotics is the hook to get them interested.”
At one time, robotics and the entire field of computer science was composed of men, but the numbers of women choosing careers in science and technology has been growing, says Fernando. He’s also noticed that “The girls team collaborates a little bit better than the boys team.”
Leading the girls team is SRES instructor Keri Tuchawena-Norris, a returning robotics coach.
“The girls are learning how to program. In my group I got the two returning students, and they are doing an awesome job at learning how to program the robots,” said Norris. “They know how to work the different areas of the robots, such as the sound and light sensors, and now I am trying to expand their learning in building the robots. I want them to get into building their robots more, and they all have their own missions that they are working on.”
Norris said the idea to have a girls-only team came up when the Titans traveled to robotics competitions and saw other teams that were composed of only boys or girls. They wanted to see how it would turn out.
“I am excited about joining the team again this year,” said Tuchawena-Norris. “Last year I didn’t get to be a part of it, and this year I am back.”