Volunteer robotics program helps students build skills
It wouldn’t be possible without the generosity of sponsors and time from a host of volunteer mentors from the county community.
Rob Chapman of Bingham Township is entering his third year as a mentor. A petroleum geologist by trade, Chapman learned of a robotics program offered to students in the Traverse City Area Public Schools from superintendent Mike Murray, who previously worked as a TCAPS administrator.
“It sounded like something we could offer our students,” he said.
Chapman had always been interested in engineering and a background in mechanics made him a natural choice to help anchor the program.
None of the men had formal education in robotics, but figured they could learn as they went along.
The club formed in the second half of the 2010-11 school year with the goal of participating in the FIRST Robotics competition.
FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) was the brainchild of Dean Kamen, an inventor and entrepreneur, who wanted to help young people discover the excitement and rewards of science and technology.
Kamen’s creations include the segway (personal transporter) and the mobile dialysis machine.
His goal was to motivate young people to explore career opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math, while building self-confidence, knowledge and life skills.
The competition season begins in early January, when teams attend regional kickoff events. At this time, a new “Game” video is broadcast to all teams explaining the objective of the competition and how points are scored. Each team leaves the kickoff with a kit of parts that serves as the building blocks for that year’s robot.
Last year, the challenge was to build a remote controlled robot which shot basketballs into a basket. Teams were given points for each ball going into the basket. They were also given additional points if their robot could maneuver over an obstacle, in this case, a bridge.
But there are some limitations.
“You can’t use parts made from the previous year’s robot,” Chapman said.
Suttons Bay has assembled a group of mentors with specific skills which are tapped during the “construction” phase of the competition. In addition to Chapman, Christensen and Klein there are Erin Rogers and Jim Niessink who are affiliated with Electro-Optics Technology, Inc.; Ray Woods, a district parent who Chapman said has “incredible CAD (computer aided design) skills and Tim Sparling, who builds testing machines for the auto industry.
“We brainstorm with the kids and develop plans to address the challenge,” Chapman said, adding that these problem-solving discussions touch on motors, gears, gear-ratios and culminate in the eventual construction of a prototype, which is tested and tweaked before competition.
Chapman said the most difficult thing about participating is finding a time when all the students can meet.
“Most of the kids involved in this sort of thing are often busy with other activities,” Chapman said.
Meetings are limited to lunch or a “seminar” period which is built into the high school schedule.
“It’s usually every other school day, but during the six-week construction period, it can spill into an occasional evening,” Chapman said.
Olivia Allen-Wickler participated last year as a sophomore on the robotics team and plans to be involved this year.
“My brother had done it the year before so I thought I’d give it a try,” said Allen-Wickler, who developed designs for T-shirts and buttons which the team sold to support their competition. This year, she hopes to enter an animation part of the competition.
“It’s a big thing and is great because it’s competition but in a different way than sports,” she said.
In addition to their time, the mentors support the team financially as sponsors. These include: the Sparling Company, Sherwood Manufacturing, Electro-Optics Technology, Inc. as well as Northern Lumber, The Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, Zonta Club of Leelanau, Enerdyne, The Suttons Bay - Bingham Fund, DargaWorks, Bonek Insurance and Send Receiving.
The first year the team placed sixth among 40 teams in the competition and was recognized as the highest-ranked first-year team.
However, the students’ reward isn’t measured in ribbons and medals.
“It’s a lot of fun to see these kids come in with no real skills and build something with a specific goal in mind,” Chapman said.
Interest in the program has grown significantly since it started at Suttons Bay. Prior to its inception, a survey of district students indicated that fewer than five percent expressed an interest in careers which involve science, technology, engineering or math.
This interest was measured at 33.4 percent last year and is likely to continue as the district has added a robotics class to this fall’s curriculum.
“As more kids and more parents become aware of it, I’m sure it will grow,” Chapman said. “It’s one thing we can do as a community to level the playing field for underfunded schools.”