Robots Rock at California High School


Extra Credit
Robotics Events is a collaboration between Innovation First and Autodesk and is designed to "encourage students and educators to explore the exciting world of robotics and bring real-world experience to STEM learning." It provides access to free software for educators and students, links to curricula incorporating robotics, forums and blogs on robotics, galleries, and, as its name suggests, complete information about a wide range of robotics events.

More Information:

--D. Nagel

When Carnegie-Mellon took the $2 million DARPA prize in November for the Defense Department's Urban Challenge, in which vehicles maneuvered along 60 miles of road without a human driver behind the wheel, the school 's Tartan Racing team was showing off the value of robotics. That's the same lesson being taught in a Monte Vista, CA ROP high school class.

Every school day for 56 minutes, Randy Lam's robotics engineering class of mostly juniors and seniors at Monte Vista High School spends its time learning about electronics and electricity, circuitry, mechanics, programming and, most of all, problem solving. "That's a big one," said Lam. "The other thing is managing a program. I think one of the most important things is getting to work as a team--learning to communicate with each other and to give and take."

Robotics refers to a machine programmed by people that does repetitive tasks that are unsafe for humans or less expensive to do by automation. "Robots don't complain," said Lam. "They don't have to have insurance; they don't get sick."

And learning how to build them inspires students to become engineers. "I get calls from Purdue and Davis and San Luis Obispo from former students who were in the class, telling me what they're doing. They're engineers at these schools. They're engineers because they took the class, because they were on the team."

Running a Robotics Class
Lam said that the robotics curriculum centers around specific tasks--putting together an arm that can pick up something or building a robot that can go fast or slow. The students work their way through theory and then are introduced to the actual components that make up a basic robot.

Running this kind of class isn't inexpensive, because it usually involves purchasing robotics kits. According to Lam, outfitting a class of 24 students costs about $2,400. That will buy 12 starter kits with wheels, motors and controllers to enable kids to build small robots that are about 18 inches. The kit, such as the VEXplorer from Vex Robotics Design System, is like a "wireless remote control car," said Lam. "In a way, they're building a wireless remote control car with appendages--mechanisms that can perform various tasks."

Robotics Competitions
The expense really heats up when the students start participating in robotics competitions. As Lam explained, "There's the Junior First Lego League, then the First Lego League, then the First Tech Competition and the First Robotics Competition." The Lego leagues are contests for kids from ages 6 to 14. The others are specifically for high school ages. At each stage, the entry fees get higher, and the equipment used gets pricier.

Sponsored by US FIRST ("Foundation for the Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology"), a non-profit organization founded in 1989 by inventor Dean Kamen, the robotics contests involve nearly 130,000 students from 37 countries.

In the First Robotics Competition, groups of 10 to 20 kids have six weeks to build a robot weighing up to 120 pounds from a common set of parts that will solve a common problem. Each year the problem changes and even though each team receives the same kit of parts, "almost every single robot is different from every other one," said Lam.

Teams are formed in the fall; the kits are made available in January; and 41 regional competitions take place in March and April, typically in university arenas. The winning team from each region heads to Atlanta for the championship event, which ends the season. "Then it starts all over again," said Lam.

The 2008 championship begins today (April 17) and runs through Saturday, April 19.

The challenge isn't just building a robot. In that six-week period the students have to "organize themselves," said Lam. "They have to figure out who's in charge, who does electronics, pneumatics, mechanical, who does the programming, who builds the Web site."

Last year's timed challenge, titled "Rack 'n' Roll," required robots to hang inflated tubes on pegs laid out in rows and columns on a 10-foot-high center rack, program a robotic vision system to navigate the robot, and lift other robots more than four feet off the ground. About 32,500 high school students participated in 1,300 teams at the regional level.

From the 2007 Rack 'n' Roll challenge

The registration fee for that contest was $6,000. On top of that, "Generally speaking," said Lam, "they'll go out and buy more parts." Subsequent competitions are slightly less expensive since the parts are already purchased.

Lam's class is lucky in that the initial equipment is funded by ROP. To cover the cost of the competitions his team received a $4,000 grant from the San Ramon Valley Educational Foundation. Then each student's family was hit up for another $400 each. "That brought us $10,000 right there," said Lam. Other schools simply cover the expense or the teams go out and solicit from local organizations. Monte Vista High, said Lam, "hasn't been really successful with that."

Awards are given in a number of areas. "It's not just about winning the robotics competition, though that's a big part of it," said Lam. Awards are presented for design, technology, sportsmanship, and commitment to the FIRST program. In the last four years Monte Vista's team has won the Gracious Professionalism award, given to the team that helps other teams out during the competition and a safety award from Underwriters Laboratories. Then last year an alliance of three schools that included Monte Vista High won the regional competition for the Davis/Sacramento area, which entitled each to head to the Atlanta.

The competitive nature of robotics, said Lam, offers students a way to receive recognition who don't normally get it. "Many times you have sports teams getting recognition. In this case, you have other kids who aren't so athletic but [rather] mentally inclined. And they build a robot.... Everybody seems to find a place on our robotics team where they can contribute and get credit. They learn their limitations and strengths. That helps them in the future."

The class attracts a greater number of boys than girls. Of 24 in Lam's current class, two are girls. But nationwide, he said, the competition figure is about 23 percent. Some teams, he pointed out, are all-girl, such as those sponsored by the Girl Scouts.

Getting Started
As Lam pointed out, few schools offer a class on robotics. But he offers this advice for educators interested in getting started: Begin by writing a curriculum. The one his class uses is actually made available as a sample on the University of California Web site. (A Vex Robotics curriculum is also coming from Autodesk and Innovation First this spring to be included with Vex classroom kits. More information about that can be found here.)

From there it's a matter of getting the equipment, which he advised obtaining in kit form. Both Lego and Vex have education kits. Also, Lam pointed out, although the competitions are a source of scholarship money for participants, schools don't have to get that ambitious. They can keep the contests local and simply hold class-wide competitions.

After all, as the Contra Costa County ROP curriculum states, robotics engineering can teach students "basic academic skills, communication, interpersonal skills, problem solving, workplace safety, technology and employment literacy." Nobody has to make it all the way to Atlanta to work on those qualities.

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About the author: Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at [email protected].

Proposals for articles and tips for news stories, as well as questions and comments about this publication, should be submitted to David Nagel, executive editor, at [email protected].