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Creativity, problem-solving skills are put to good use in Inglemoor’s robotics class

  • Written by Deborah Stone
Robotics Class Second
Student Chris Wilson assembles a protobot. Photo by Deborah Stone.
Once upon a time, Tom Donnelly worked  as an application programmer for an image analysis company. After 12 years however, he found himself out of work due to a company buyout and subsequent layoff.

His path led him to a job in tech support for a school district, which eventually led to a teaching position and a Career Technical Education certificate.

Now in his fourth year at Inglemoor High School, Donnelly is responsible for classes in web design, computer science, C#NET and robotics.

The latter course, which is relatively new at Inglemoor, stemmed from the school’s robotics club.

“I had a student three years ago who wanted to enter the FIRST Robotics Competition so I started the club,” explains Donnelly. “A class in the subject seemed like a natural progression once I realized there was interest among the kids.” He adds, “This course helps expose kids to the field and gives them a foundation about the different concepts, as well as provides plenty of hands-on application experience in building robots and experimenting with the different components.”

Currently, the class has 15 students enrolled, who meet four days a week during seventh period, which is technically after the official school day.

Donnelly comments that the class allows kids to work independently at their own pace through the material. He notes that the students’ motivation levels differ and the challenge for him is to make sure that he doesn’t slow down the more enthusiastic and eager learners, while keeping the others on task and up to speed.

“Sometimes it’s like juggling a bunch of balls,” he says, “because you have all these kids working at different levels on different projects.” He adds, “But, it’s fun to see the excitement that is generated and great to watch the light bulbs go off.”

The course is built around classroom kits containing motors, gears, wheels and other components used to make a robot.

Students initially use manuals to help them understand the steps involved in making protobots, which are then utilized in classroom mini competitions and matches.

Once they grasp the concepts and have had experience in assembly, the kids are encouraged to come up with their own designs.

“This is where the creativity comes in,” comments Donnelly, “as well as problem solving skills.”

Chris Wilson, a senior, is in his second year of robotics.

He initially enrolled in the class because he was intrigued with the subject plus he liked the fact that it was offered during seventh period when it wouldn’t conflict with the rest of his schedule.

“I like computers and the idea of learning how to build robots sounded cool,” says Wilson. “It’s been really fun, especially this year because I feel more comfortable and sure of my skills.”

He notes that last year he had many design issues with his robots, but this time around, he has been able to solve the flaws and achieve a higher success rate.

Junior Julia Derocher, one of three girls in the class, was attracted to the course because of its hands-on learning experience.

She says, “I like being able to build something – a usable product – with my hands.”

She notes that the class gives her freedom to be creative and adds, “We get a purpose for our robots, like it has to pick up a ball for example, and we can build it anyway we want as long as it can achieve the purpose.”

Derocher comments that in addition to creativity, she uses problem-solving skills and mathematics in the various projects. Most of the students enrolled in the course join with those in the club to participate in the FIRST Robotics Competition, which is held in March.

They spend the six weeks leading up to the event constructing a competitive robot that can operate autonomously, as well as when guided by wireless controls, to accomplish a set of prescribed tasks.

Often dubbed a “varsity sport for the mind,” the FIRST Robotics Competition combines the excitement of sport with the demands of science and technology.

Last year, Inglemoor’s team ended up in the top15 out of a total field of 100 teams.

“It’s really a fun experience for the kids,” comments Donnelly. “They start from scratch to make their robot and they have to work together as a team, so it’s great for cooperative learning.”

Student Zack Dunnewind has been involved in the event since he was a sophomore when he joined the school’s robotics club.

“I’ve always been interested in mechanical stuff,” he explains. “My parents tell me that I was a train addict when I was really young and then I got into computers later on. Robotics is really fun, and it’s also challenging.”

The senior feels that Inglemoor’s team will be competitive this year, as some of the students on the team have more experience now.

He admits that preparing for the event is time consuming, as it involves putting in lots of hours after school and on weekends, but he emphasizes that the commitment is definitely worthwhile.

“It takes dedication,” he notes, “but it’s very rewarding, especially when your robot successfully accomplishes the tasks.”

Donnelly adds, “The kids take real pride in their finished product. And they enjoy seeing how it stacks up to other teams’ robots at the competition.”

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