Robotics Students See Real-World Lessons

By Rhea R. Borja — October 31, 2001 5 min read
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High school students Mike Capasso and Aman Sethi stared through smudged safety glasses and cautiously moved remote-control levers. On the floor in front of them, MOE, their homemade, 130-pound robot came to life. Motors whirred, and a flashing strobe light pulsated on the front of the neon-green machine as it trundled toward a 7-foot-tall aluminum basket of black rubber balls. Slowly, the robot clamped the basket and pushed it toward a small ramp. Then MOE steadied itself with horizontal metal rods that snapped out smartly, while a skinny black robotic arm extended upward to balance the basket.

So far, so good. But the students had trouble maneuvering MOE, which stands for “miracle of engineering,” to grab another basket.

Time and again, their mechanical creation clamped thin air despite the students’ minor adjustments at the remote controls. Finally, their instructor, engineer Mary Fassnacht, who was helping the students in a room at the headquarters of a science and engineering company here, signaled them to stop.

Mr. Capasso, a 17-year-old student from the private, 1,600-student St. Mark’s High School in this city, sighed. “It’s challenging,” he said. “You have to get it just right.”

Homer the Robot

These students participate in Miracle Workerz, a DuPont-sponsored after-school robotics team whose members come from Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. They’re part of a growing number of students nationwide attracted to robotics, which melds engineering, electronics, and technology.

One national robotics competition for high school students, for instance, has grown from just a handful of students when it started in 1992 to nearly 20,000 participants today. And as more middle and high schools have integrated technology and engineering courses into their curricula, robotics has shown up in an increasing number of classrooms.

This growing interest in robotics has come alongside popular television shows such as Comedy Central’s “BattleBots,” which pits robot against robot in gladiator- style battles, and the Learning Channel’s “Junkyard Wars,” in which contestants compete in building machines from powerboats and off-road buggies to a catapult that can hurl pumpkins 50 yards.

Science and engineering companies such as DuPont and Boeing and government agencies such as NASA sponsor robotics competitions not just to turn youngsters on to science, but also to find and nurture the best young talent for their future workforces. While demand for engineers is growing, American universities graduated nearly 19 percent fewer engineering majors in 2000 than they did in 1986, according to the Washington- based Engineering Workforce Commission.

Whatever their career aspirations, designing and building a robot from scratch helps students see how the abstract lessons learned in physics, trigonometry, and science classes actually work in the real world, says Wendy Wooten, a science teacher at the 3,100-student Chatsworth High School in Chatsworth, Calif. Ms. Wooten teaches an elective course in robotics.

In fact, the school’s robotics team, which Ms. Wooten advises, recently won the Chairman’s Award, the most coveted prize in a nationwide robotics competition sponsored by FIRST, or For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, a nonprofit group based in Manchester, N.H. Roughly 20,000 high school students participated.

“Before [the students started using robotics], you could give them equations and it was meaningless for them,” Ms. Wooten said. “All of a sudden, they have a reason for learning math. When they actually have to learn gear ratios and the relationship between the power of the motor and its output speed, it becomes crystal clear.”

Reinforcing Academics

Chatsworth High junior Nora Dakessian said she used to view Hollywood film stars such as Julia Roberts as her role models. Now, she’d rather emulate the Rocketdyne/Boeing and Fadal Machining Co. engineers she works with on Homer, the school’s robot.

“I’m starting to realize what’s going on in the real world,” she said. “This opened up whole different fields for me.”

That’s music to Dean Kamen’s ears. He’s the founder of FIRST, the president of the engineering company DEKA, and a well- known inventor and entrepreneur. Through his FIRST competitions—what he calls the “NCAA of smarts"—he’s trying to jump-start a new generation of scientists and critical thinkers.

“There’s millions of technical jobs these kids could have if they put a little energy in learning,” he said. “The robots are incidental. They’re a catalyst for a bigger vision.”

Indeed, robotics has helped him reinforce what he’s learned in school, said Nicolas Gauthier, a member of the Miracle Workerz team and a senior at the private, 470-student Archmere Academy in Claymont, Del. “Everything started to make more sense,” said Mr. Gauthier, who has always been interested in robotics, but doesn’t have the opportunity to explore it fully in school.

With the help of engineers from DuPont, based here in Wilmington, he and other club members learned basic engineering skills, such as cutting sheet metal and working pneumatic gears, which use compressed air to move things around. Those skills provide the foundation for knowing how to design, wire, and build a remote- controlled robot from scratch.

The team’s long hours and intensive work paid off in April at the national FIRST competition, where Miracle Workerz won top honors for MOE’s design and performance. Last year, the team had more than 40 members, but this year whittled it down to 32, a more manageable size.

The students found that in addition to improving their math, science, and technology abilities, building a robot has helped hone their communication and team-building skills, said Mr. Gauthier and St. Mark’s senior Brian Gattman.

“There has to be a synergy,” said John LaRock, the team’s coordinator and a human resources manager for DuPont. “It’s about human interaction.”

But it’s learning new concepts that has really captured some students’ attention.

Miracle Workerz member Andrea Tribo used to play varsity soccer for her school, but she quit because it got monotonous. Now the 12th grader at the 800-student Charter School of Wilmington spends her free time in the robotics club.

“It’s more of a challenge than sports,” she said. “You’re always learning.”

Coverage of technology is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

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