NORTH EAST — In several rooms of Cecil College’s Technology Center, county middle school students sifted through bins of building blocks as they assembled their very own robots Thursday.
The students were competing in a robotics competition among the county’s six middle schools. After building their robots, teams could score points in a series of challenges.
North East Middle School student Alyssa Snyder said her team looked at the challenges at hand and then set about designing their robot around specific tasks.
“First, we had to analyze the problem. Then, we all thought of a solution together of making a giant kind of scoop to turn the blocks and push them to get points,” she said.
Snyder and her teammates, Katy Hammer, Juliette Suter, and Victoria Dorey — all from NEMS — set to task designing, building, testing, and redesigning their robot. As they did so, Hammer said they were methodical in the decisions they made to tweak the robot to be competition-ready.
“We kind of just came up with an idea and went with it, and then we made changes to it as we went along,” she said. “Like what kind of problems occurred and we tried to figure out solutions to it.”
Although Suter doesn’t necessarily see herself going into the engineering portion of STEM — or science, technology, engineering and mathematics — she said she can see how robotics could be used in her future desired career.
“I want to be a doctor. So using a robot for more precision on brain surgery, that would definitely be part of it,” she said.
Frank Cardo, science and STEM program coordinator for Cecil County Public Schools, said the robotics competition was meant to tie the science and mathematics lessons students learn in their classrooms to real world applications.
“You can talk about doing algebra problems, or you can apply the algebra to moving a robot and looking at the radius and diameter and circumferences of wheels and stuff like that, and determine how far they’re going to move and how fast simply by the circumference of the wheel … It makes learning fun,” Cardo said.
Rising Sun Middle School sixth-grade students Thomas Whitehurst and Pedro Salinas Mendoza enjoyed working together to individualize their robot.
“It was really exciting because you get to build it by yourself, make it look like what you want, and you get to do it with your friends and people that you know,” Whitehurst said.
Whitehurst said his favorite part of building a robot is getting to test it to see whether it works.
“You get that kind of exhilarating feeling once you test it, saying ‘It might work, it might not. Let’s hope it works,’” he said.
Josh Christman, who teaches technology education at RSMS, said students’ designs can work well on the drawing board but the real moment of truth is when they see how it fairs during the competition.
“When they test it on the field, there’s a lot of different variables that come into play. Something that may have worked OK or well in the room has a slightly different setup in the field, so there’s just a lot of things that come into play,” he said. “Seeing them collaborate with each other and bounce ideas off of each other, it’s just really cool to see them work through that whole process and brainstorm and try to hopefully come up with a better product the second time around.”
As he helped his students through the design process, Christman said he enjoyed seeing the kids get inspired to possibly pursue a career in STEM one day.
“It’s just really cool to give them that insight into the different things that they can do, and this is just a small part of robotics in today’s world. So for them to know that there’s a field out there that they can pursue as they’re getting closer to high school, it’s just an awesome experience for them,” he said.
Teammates Malaya Robinson and Mabeline Sevart, sixth grade students at Perryville Middle School, returned from the first round of the competition with their robot having earned 35 points.
“We didn’t get 0,” Sevart said, looking on the bright side.
She added that their robot managed to climb the mountain on the course.
When they were designing the robot, Robinson said she and Sevart focused on one challenge at first and worked from there.
“We were just going to make it try to get the cup to get 30 points and go from there. Then we just chose different things to put on the touch sensors and the wheels and everything else,” she said.
Robinson said she enjoyed competing against her peers with their robots.
“It’s pretty fun and competitive … It’s nice to see other people your age doing something to keep themselves active,” she said.
While the competition was geared toward those in middle school, elementary school students also made their way to Cecil College’s campus that day to observe the competition and get their own introduction to coding.
Although students from only five of CCPS’s 17 elementary schools were represented at the event due funding and logistics, Jessica Kubeck, CCPS’s instructional coordinator for elementary mathematics and Gifted and Talented program, said she hopes to roll out the opportunity to all elementary schools next year with the help of a grant. Kubeck also hopes to get robotics clubs started in some of the elementary schools to build that interest as early as possible.
“It takes time, but I think we can do it,” she said.
The elementary school students got to witness some of their middle school counterparts compete in the robotics event. They also got the chance to do some of their own introductory coding with devices from Microsoft MakeCode and Circuit Playground Express, according to Kubeck.
“They can code them to make light, make noise, make songs. You can hear ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’ over here. They can probably sit here for hours,” she said.
Kubeck said young people today are growing up in a technology-driven era, and therefore they are naturally-inclined to learn about robotics.
“They’re even wired a little bit differently than we are. It feels very comfortable to them,” she said. “We just try, from an education perspective, to get them in on the engineering design process, how does robotics help solve problems, critically thinking about robotics and just the practicality of it.”
At one table, Holly Hall Elementary School fifth-grade students Zara Polanco and Amya Grim worked on one of the devices.
“We’re programming these circuit boards to make them change colors and do sounds and stuff,” Grim said.
Polanco said she enjoys the engineering side of robotics, while Grim said she simply likes getting to “make loud noises to annoy people.”
But both girls said they are interested in going into a technology field.
Polanco is interested in creating “video games that are story type where it looks realistic in the sense of it. It’ll be kind of like virtual reality but instead it’ll be a third-person view.”
Grim, on the other hand, wants to build tools to help make people’s lives easier.
“Things to help people out more, making more things for handicapped people to make them more accessible for them,” she said.