“In a galaxy far, far away….” No wait, it was at Plumb Library in Rochester on May 17 where a group of very enthusiastic fourth- through sixth-grade students got a chance to try out robots designed and built by the Old Colony Regional Vocational Technical High School’s Team Rocket.
In the three years since the program began, about 14 students from every shop in the school have joined in the opportunity to learn how to build a robot from hundreds of bits and pieces. They’ve learned that creative problem solving and technical applications of engineering and math can come together by involving all the minds in a team, and the tangible manifestation of that learning experience is something nearly every kid on the planet loves – robots.
Educator Dan Brush has been the lead instructor for Team Rocket these last three years.
“The program has ramped up over the years,” said Brush. “We get kids from every shop, not just electrical or mechanical.”
Brush said the students use materials sourced from Vex, a company started by two American engineers who saw a need to enhance STEM education through building robots with school-age children. Now the internationally recognized organization of students, including those from Old Colony, have been competing in robot games that allow the students to demonstrate their skills and maybe even return with a trophy. And although the program is still developing, Brush said the students have competed well and earned some rewards.
“Give everyone a chance to drive,” Brush calls out over the chorus of young voices rising from the library floor as the high school students show the younger kids how to operate the robots. There’s even one that looks like and rather sounds like a guitar, and another that swiftly solves the Rubik’s Cube.
Brush is working towards getting varsity letters for the students who participate in the program for all four years, “…Just like a sport,” Brush said.
The program does require financial backing, and to secure some of those funds Brush seeks out grants and the students do fundraising, said Mattapoisett resident Ryan Pickwick.
Pickwick is set to become the most experienced student on the team when the seniors graduate. He is currently a sophomore.
Jasper Tan of Lakeville has been with the program since it began. He’ll graduate this June and is heading to UMass Dartmouth in the fall to begin his education in mechanical engineering.
“There is a lot of process in making a robot,” said Tan. “It really is a team effort. We all learn the same things but everyone doesn’t think the same. With experience we can solve things with everyone’s fullest effort.”
According to Tan, it takes many hundreds of hours to craft a robot, from writing specifications to actually screwing pieces together and the associated computer programing. Brush pointed out that the computer programming in one of the Lego robots zipping across the floor had “more brains than the Apollo spaceship.”
Of the younger students on hand, on this night most were planning to start their high school years at Old Colony and wanted to find out about this program now.
Siblings Joshua and Ellie Lima of Freetown are both planning on entering Old Colony’s electrical shop in the next couple of years. Pat Flaherty showed them how a robot picks up a target and carries it forward saying, “This year (in competition) we shot balls and flipped discs.”
Brush also handed out a quote from the I-Robot series penned by the late engineer and sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov. Asimov, Brush said, is also credited with being the inspiration behind some of the Star Warsrobots.
So, what was Asimov’s vision for robots? Simply put, a robot should never injure a human, must obey orders as long as those orders don’t hurt humans, and must protect its own existence as long as it doesn’t hurt a human or disobey orders that hurt humans.
Hmmm … I wonder how the robots feel about that.
To learn more about the Vex programs and how your child may engage in a greater STEM experience, visit www.vexrobotics.com or contact Dan Brush at Old Colony, 508-763-8011. He says he’s “there all the time.”
By Marilou Newell