Designing Winning Robots Requires Passion for Learning Outside the Classroom
5.18.12 | Team Antipodes, a robotics team from Pacifica, Calif., has had a busy year. As sought-after speakers, they’ve explained to Google engineers, school board members, and anyone else who would listen why every kid should have a chance to learn robotics.
As competitors, they’ve won awards at a number of robotics qualifying tournaments, including at the Northern California regionals, culminating in a trip last month to St. Louis for the 2012 FIRST Tech Challenge World Championship. There they beat 128 teams from around the world for the PTC Robot Design Award (read the play-by-play).
Team members Violet Replicon, Kjersti Chippindale and Emma Filar, juniors at Terra Nova High School, estimate they’ve spent hundreds if not thousands of hours designing, building and programming their robots – all outside of school.
“I feel that I have learned more skills for the real world from robotics than school projects,” Replicon told me via email.
“I have put formulas to use and have seen real world situations for math, which you do not normally see in school,” she added. “I have also learned how the design process works, how long and tedious that process is, which is something I feel is really important.”
I learned about Team Antipodes the way many of their fans do—watching them in action. The group participated in last year’s East Bay Mini Maker Faire in Oakland, where they demonstrated how well their robot Rubi could balance on a teeter-totter-like bridge, impressing my 5-year-old and his friend.
The team developed its reputation for innovative robotics design on the competition circuit. They’ve traveled as far as Istanbul and Tasmania, where they collaborated with other young women on winning projects and developed ongoing friendships.
If you’re not familiar with FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), you should know that the New Hampshire-based nonprofit has been inspiring kids to pursue STEM fields for 20 years. More than 26,000 teams from across the globe participate in all levels of FIRST programs each year, which are open to those in grades K through 12.
At the world championships last month 12,000 students from 32 countries competed in three levels of FIRST, which drew serious star power, including will.i.am.
In the FIRST Tech Challenge, the program that Antipodes competed in this year, competitions are based on a sports model. Teams of up to 10 high school students design, build and program their own robots to compete in challenges such as upending a plastic crate, placing a racquetball in it, and lifting it above the floor.
Robots are built using a re-usable, modular robotics platform. Each team receives a kit comprised of gears, motors, sensors, microprocessors, Bluetooth communications, and CAD software—but no instructions. They are, however, required to work with mentors.
“It’s not just about robots,” FIRST founder Dean Kamen said at the competition kickoff last year. “It’s about building self-confidence, respect and important relationships with people who invent new technologies to make a better future.”
The teams that take part in the FIRST program are powerful examples of “connected learning,” a new model some educational researchers are using to examine learning that takes place outside the classroom and is based on student’s interests.
Anthropologist Mimi Ito calls it learning that is “socially connected and interest driven.” It’s pursing “expertise around something you care deeply about,” she said recently, “and you’re supported by friends and institutions who share and recognize this common passion or purpose.”
“Robotics, above all, has taught me that I can never be truly proud of something I didn’t put my heart and soul into,” Chippindale said. “I’m just glad the judges recognized our hard work, too.”
The girls say they wish they could pursue robotics as part of their school curriculum, both because it would help them reduce their workload (they pulled many late nights splitting time between programming their robot and completing school assignments), and because they like assignments that involve hands-on experiences.
“I think that the hands-on style of learning that robotics provides is much more lasting, and exciting, than the math and science we learn in class,” said Replicon, an aspiring astrophysicist who is considering studying computer science in college. “I love outer space,” she wrote in her email.
Team Antipodes is, of course, unusual in that it’s an all-girls team. Girls are still underrepresented in robotics, as they are in other STEM activities (see this report [pdf] from the American Association of University Women). And the pressure to conform to gender stereotypes can make it very difficult for girls to express interests in fields typically associated with boys (just ask Maya’s mom, or the SPARK team that challenged Lego for building salon- and party-themed kits).
Team Antipodes has been down this road enough that its members sound a little tired of being asked about it. The lack of women mentors in the field has not been a problem for them, they said, and they place value in mentoring younger students. The main point they want to drive home, said Chippindale, is: “We are girls and we have a blast doing robotics.”
I don’t see gender when I look at successful and innovative people, I see their inventions and their ideas.
– Kjersti Chippindale, Team Antipodes
“I think at competitions it gets down to the robots, no matter who made them,” Chippindale said, “so we don’t think of ourselves as any different from other teams. I don’t see gender when I look at successful and innovative people, I see their inventions and their ideas.”
The FIRST program places an emphasis on collaboration and mentoring and encourages participants to share their ideas and build off each other’s work. Last year, Team Antipodes presented at the Northern California FTC kickoff on essential power tools for aspiring robot makers, hoping to save other teams time and money during their first robot build—an experience Team Antipodes recalls on its website. Browse their site and you’ll soon realize the sophisticated understanding of systems, engineering, and technology these teams need to compete.
This spring, Replicon taught an after-school robotics class at her grade school, Ocean Shore Elementary. At each class session she taught younger students to work with a new type of sensor and/or programming function.
And last fall, as part of the Bay Area Science Festival, the team modified a robot to create a Mars Rover Simulator that supported their local library’s One Book One Community selection: “Packing for Mars,” by Mary Roach. They then invited kids to drive the simulator at the library, and partnered with a local astronomy educator to give the kids a few lessons.
“The girls love letting kids drive their robot and getting the word out about robotics, and especially that girls can do it, too,” Ken Filar, Team Antipodes coach (and team member Emma Filar’s dad) said in an email.
Instead of competing in the next academic year, the girls have decided to retire in their prime and spend their senior year of high school recruiting new members so the program doesn’t die out when they graduate. They are also interested in pushing for district-wide robotics programs for secondary and elementary levels.
It’s the type of dedication they’re used to applying to building robots from scratch—only this time around, they’re counting on others to build the future.
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