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Robotics club teaches valuable tech skills

Kelley Cox Post Independent
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GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado – It’s 4:30 on a Wednesday afternoon, more than an hour after the final bell signaling the end of official school day, and the hallways at Glenwood Springs High School are abuzz with activity.

Spring sports teams are busy doing preseason conditioning drills up and down the hallways; echoes can be heard from the percussion ensemble rehearsal; drama students prepare for their weekend production; and pockets of students can be found here and there planning various after-school functions.

Near the end of a long hall, 14 students are gathered in math teacher Matt Jensson’s classroom. They’re hard at work piecing together erector set parts for a computerized robot they will be using in an upcoming competition.



The FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Tech Challenge (FTC) is giving students in the GSHS Robotics Club a chance to design and build a robot that can accomplish a set of prescribed tasks.

“This particular robot will lift balls out of a crate and place them in other crates,” Jensson explains about this year’s featured FTC game, called “Bowled Over.”



The Robotics Club is preparing for two upcoming competitions, including the March 17 FTC at Regis University in Denver. There, the local students will match up with other robotics teams from around the region to play the game.

Each fall, FIRST comes up with new games for the participating school teams to prepare for. Teams have until the March competitions to work with the software provided, raise additional money, build their robots and learn how to play that year’s games using the robots.

Sitting in a corner of Jensson’s classroom is a much larger robot. This one is wrapped tightly in a plastic industrial bag, in accordance with strict rules for the companion FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC), taking place March 21-24 at the University of Denver.

Described as “varsity sport for the mind,” this year’s featured FRC game is called “Rebound Rumble,” a robotic basketball-style competition.

In this game, each team forms an alliance with two other teams for a 3-on-3 style robot basketball contest.

Each alliance uses their robots to try to score as many baskets as possible in hoops placed at different heights during the 2-minute, 15-second match. Higher hoops score more points.

“It’s a unique challenge, because a team might be part of your alliance one game and the next game they are your opponent,” said Glenwood club leader Caleb Begly. He is a senior from Marble who is home-schooled, but was instrumental in getting the local club started.

“We have a scout who goes out and talks to the other teams to determine who might be the best fit to be our team member,” Begly said.

In preparation for the competition, teams work under strict rules, with limited resources and on tight deadlines, to establish a budget, raise funds, develop teamwork skills, and design and build their robot to perform the required task.

The large robot involves anywhere between $7,000 and $9,000 worth of parts, some of which are provided with the $6,500 contest entry fee. Teams can then raise up to $3,500 on their own. In addition to school fundraisers, the Glenwood Springs team obtained science and technology grants from JC Penney and NASA.

This is the first year for the GSHS Robotics Club. The club is open to high school students from throughout the Roaring Fork School District.

“We have a lot of things for students to do after school, like athletics, speech, drama, you name it,” Jensson said. “But there was nothing really for this group of kids until now.”

GSHS is one of a growing number of middle and high schools to start robotics clubs or full-fledged, curriculum-based robotics classes in recent years.

Locally, Ross Montessori School in Carbondale has offered an after-school robotics program for the past several years, and Glenwood Springs Middle School is starting one up as well.

“It’s a great way for students to apply the math and science skills they learn in school to real-life situations,” said GSMS math teacher Richard Scott, who also helps with the high school club.

“We give them the tools to build something that completes a specific task, and pretty much leave it to them to figure it out,” said Scott, whose son Robert is on the high school team. “They learn a lot just by trial and error, as opposed to sitting in a classroom for an hour focused on one subject.”

Driving the interest is an increasing push by technology companies to stress the importance of science and math for students who want to eventually land jobs in tech-related fields.

FIRST was founded in the early 1990s by Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway computerized personal transporters.

The organization’s competition-based programs include the Tech Challenge and Robotics programs for high school students, Lego League for grades fourth through eighth, and Junior Lego League for kindergarten through third-graders.

Listed on the FIRST website [www.usfirst.org] as sponsors for the competitions are heavy-hitters in the tech world such as Rockwell Automation, Microsoft and Texas Instruments.

“There is a lot of support and money available for science and tech programs in schools,” Jensson said.

And for good reason. The students in his club are the future architects, engineers, software writers and computer programmers of the world.

“We have a pretty good mix of students in the club, from different cultures and different family backgrounds,” Jensson said. “We want the kids who are willing to work and willing to participate, sometimes for long hours into the evening.”

Jensson would like to expand what’s now an after-school club to be an actual junior-senior level class that’s part of the high school’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) curriculum.

“If we can make it a class, it will be a more structured environment and go to a deeper level,” he said. “It’s actually taking what you learned in physics and applying it in real life.”

The Robotics Club has involved a core group of about 25 students, mostly freshmen and sophomores, throughout the school year.

Begly and his younger clubmates talk confidently about their futures, including college aspirations and eventual careers.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the interaction between software and real-world objects,” said Begly, who plans to go to college to become a computer engineer. “The club was a great way to get more involved and see how that happens.

“I have gained a lot of organizational and practical experience by doing this,” he said.

GSHS sophomores Anna Jimenez, Katia Reyes and Andrew Tucker said their experience in the Robotics Club has provided a valuable experience that can have a variety of applications later in life.

For the upcoming Robotics competition, Reyes has been responsible for keeping the business end of things in order, including fundraising, budgeting and even booking the hotels and other travel arrangements for the club trip.

“I don’t work with the robots so much,” she said. “I’m kind of clumsy with those kinds of things. But I am good at finance, and working to solve the money and budget issues that come along.”

Jimenez and Tucker are the designated robot operators who will be working the joystick during the basketball competition. Jimenez is also in charge of making sure the team stays within the rules of the game.

“There is a lot of problem-solving that goes with it, in addition to learning new things about engineering,” said Jimenez, who would like to study to become an electrical and mechanical engineer.

Tucker explained that, in addition to the manual control of the robots, each contest involves pre-programming the devices to run on auto-pilot for a brief time before he and Jimenez take the controls.

“I’ve always been interested in design,” said Tucker, who would like to be either an architect or computer programmer. “Mr. Jensson knew that and came up to me in the hallway one day and said I should be in the club.”

The opportunity to work with sophisticated computer software programs has been invaluable, Tucker said.

The upcoming FIRST competition will serve as the regional qualifier for the national competitions later this spring. There’s even a world championship, Jensson said.

Students who participate in the FIRST competitions can also qualify for some $14.8 million in available college scholarships.

jstroud@postindependent.com


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