Distance Learning | Feature

Robot Building Ala Skype

Two groups of high school students 37 miles apart did more than build a robot via Skype. They proved that technology brings people together, challenging the myth that personal contact is the only way to build a team.

Students are sometimes accused of "playing" with technology. The accusations occasionally come from adults, usually teachers and administrators, who equate the use of high-tech resources with classroom distractions. But when students need to solve complicated, time-sensitive problems, they are motivated to use whatever means are available to them. In the case of the students from Spruce Creek High School and University High School in Volusia County, FL, it was Skype video conference calling that allowed them to form a robotics team…and build a competition robot.

With only six weeks to design, build, and test a robot that must perform specific tasks, students at the two schools collaborated this spring via Skype to participate in the annual F.I.R.S.T. Robotic Competition (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). Video cameras in each robotics lab and the offices of the programming and engineering teachers at each school were on for four hours every afternoon. A computer projects the image of all four rooms on a monitor or a large video screen at both schools.

Skype Unites Classrooms
This is the second of a two-part series about the use of cloud computing to allow students at two schools in Volusia County, FL, to work jointly to prepare for a robotics competition. The first part, which appeared in the May issue of District Cloud Computing, describes how two Florida high schools--37 miles apart--used Skype to become a single robotics team.

"A lot of the design concepts are thought of at University High School, and a lot of fabrication is done at Spruce Creek," said Kyle Steiner, a senior at Spruce Creek. "So, it was a good medium to communicate back and forth and brainstorm ideas. Nothing can really beat meeting in person, having a one-on-one conversation, but Skype is definitely better than talking on the phone or sending a million text messages."

As the project's "head programmer," he was happy to explain how Skype helped his team win a spot at the regional level of the 2012 competition.

"At University High School, they don't have as much programming experience as someone at Spruce Creek High School," Steiner said, "so we can sit over Skype and talk it out over a couple periods.

"I've been doing it since I was a freshman--and over that time I've gathered programming experience. I've been doing electrical engineering for years now, so I guess I'm capable of helping the students who just don't quite understand it as well. That's one of the fundamental principles of F.I.R.S.T. Robotics: students able to help one another through the more complex problems."

The robotics instructor at University High School, Fred Urquhart, had a wider view of how Skype enables students to work together. He used Steiner, whom he calls "an electronics genius," to illustrate his point: A shy kid who used to look away from the camera when the two schools started using Skype in 2011, Steiner now stands directly in front of the camera and asks his peers how he can help.

That leadership inspires a kinship that is born out of regular and ongoing visual communication.

"In the middle of the lab is the competition arena that we have set up almost year-round," Urquhart said. "It's amazing the way that the kids will be testing a prototype in the competition arena and the kids at the other school--all of a sudden there will be a gang of them gathered around (their) computer, and you can see all of these highly interested faces staring at the computer monitor.

"My kids will look up from the arena and give these little waves, and all the grins will break out. The group that's all ganged around the computer monitor will start waving back, realizing the visual they were just giving my guys....It's like they become a long-distance family, and they're really quite nice to one another."

Steiner, one of the eldest in the family, is going to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in the fall with $60,000 in scholarships (another $100,000 is pending) to work toward a degree in computer engineering. He has a few insights to share with educators hesitant to use Skype.

"Businesses all over use conference calls to communicate, and it's a lot cheaper to have one Skype call than to fly someone halfway around the world," he said. "I think it definitely provides an introduction to real-world and business applications.

"Let's face it: That's why we're in high school, to get prepared for the future. What other purpose is there in schooling if we're not going to better ourselves for the future?"

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