Transformers: Robotics competition is changing STEM education and communities for the better

by | Mar 1, 2019 | Features

Photo by Liz Chrisman

Whether it be Rosie from the Jetsons, R2-D2 from Star Wars or Autobot Transformer Optimus Prime, we as a culture are fascinated by robots. While these famous automatons may seem like pure space-age fantasy, the robots in Russellville are very real. Not only are these robots real, they are in our schools under the control of students as young as third grade. Over the past two years, the Russellville School District has integrated the VEX IQ robotics program into the elementary schools including the upper elementary fifth grade.
As you can imagine, the program is extremely popular. Because of that popularity, students must complete an application and participate in tryouts. Though these differ from school to school, they may include a written, robot building, or computer coding aspect as well as a recommendation from past classroom teachers. If chosen for the team, students and parents are asked to commit to attending weekly after-school practices and day-long competitions.
Sequoyah and Oakland Heights Elementary were among the first schools to embrace the program. This year, 80 third and fourth grade students from Oakland Heights tried out for the robotics teams, but only 16 students made the cut.
As the parent of a robotics team student, I’ve had a unique view of the program. Last year I accompanied the Sequoyah Elementary team to the world championship in Kentucky. The event was comprised of teams from over 30 nations, and the River Valley was represented by two teams from Russellville, the second team from Oakland Heights. The trip was made possible through the passionate fundraising by parents and support from sponsors and the community.
This year many of those same students are poised to compete as fifth graders at the state level in an upcoming competition to be held at Arkansas Tech. At a recent practice, I watched them prepare and spoke to team members about their roles. Though the program is referred to as a robotics program, it includes much more than simply building and driving robots. There are many roles that round out the team.
While two robot drivers practiced the maneuver known as a high hang on one of the practice fields, robot builders refined modifications to the other robot. Using feedback from the drivers and always striving for better results, the builders make continuous changes to the robots at weekly practices. I watched as they added weights, measured and adjusted the robot arms to enable the robot to better grasp the game pieces. When the builders experienced a setback, Coach Aaron Lensing provided patient guidance through thoughtful analogy: “Think of the forks on a forklift. How does that compare to the robot?”
Builders collaborate with other team members to keep an engineering notebook. The notebook documents goals and modifications builders make to the robots with words and sketches. Accurate records allow team members to track progress, changes, and recreate their work. And an organized comprehensive engineering notebook will garner points for the team in competition.
Coders are responsible for the programs that direct a robot’s movements during the autonomous portion of competition. Making every movement as accurate as possible involves many trials and errors, but interestingly, that is what the coders enjoy most about their roles.
Last, but not least on the team, are STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) researchers. These researchers identify a problem and explore creative ways to solve it. Last year, the Sequoyah STEM researchers focused on using robotics to help the elderly. Their creative solution won the state level and was presented at the World Championship. This year one team has designed a dream school, including an inclusive budget — even teacher salaries. The other fifth grade team designed a park accessible for disabled children. The award winning project takes into account the height of basketball hoops, type of playground surface, along with other factors.
When asked about how robotics benefits students at the elementary level, Oakland Heights coach Marcia Correia says it teaches life lessons. “We have successes and we have failures,” Marcia says. “They are learning to rise above those failures, and turn them into something rewarding.  This is a wonderful program that teaches kids to work together, to help each other, and the benefits of working hard at something.”
Successes and failures are definitely a hard reality for students and coaches. Brad Beatty, a coach for the Sequoyah team, recalls a student who did not make the cut when she tried out for the team as a third grader. This student turned that into a learning experience. Over the summer, she studied and attended two summer robotics programs. All that work paid off and this year she is a proud member of the Sequoyah robotics team. Beatty also believes that the program helps more female students become engaged and excel in the STEM field. According to the website, women comprise only 24 percent of the STEM workforce. However, the robotics teams in Russellville seem to be around 50 percent female.
The coaches I spoke with all agree that the robotics program teaches students to problem solve and to honor the struggles they encounter. If they persist, that struggle does come to fruition.
“It is very exciting when your team accomplishes something that they have worked hard toward for a while,” says Jonathan Livermore, London Elementary coach. “The whole team was jumping and shouting after we built our first robot and the drivers were able to make the robot reach up and hang from a bar. Aaron Lensing, coach of the fifth grade team, agrees that teaching students persistence in solving problems is what leads to great accomplishment. Aaron says that the current fifth grade teams have “far exceeded” his expectations.
So how do these kids score points with robots? The game oriented competitions have several components including coding or autonomous challenges as well as demonstrating robot design, strategy, and robot driving skills. Teams score points when they complete tasks. Other areas in which teams may also compete involve scholarly presentation such as submission of the team’s engineering notebook and a problem solving STEM project.
The game competition actually changes each year and is revealed at the VEX Robotics World Competition. Last year’s game for the elementary level involved moving and stacking various colored rings. This year, team members are challenged to stack tall pieces called hubs and race to hang from a bar hovering over the game field before time runs out. Another challenge to the game is that teams have two drivers and both must drive the robot an equal amount of time. The competition also has a a cooperative component where two teams work together, each with their own team robot. This piece of the puzzle reinforces strategy and teamwork since players compete alongside teams they may have met moments before they play.
Russellville also offers the opportunity to participate at the high school level. High school coach Ethan Hodge says the high school program helps prepare students for life after high school. “They learn to analyze situations, develop a solution, communicate their ideas with others, be a productive member of a team, support their ideas with reasons, use tools, follow proper safety protocols, and how to program,” Ethan says. “These students are learning skills that are directly relevant to careers, college, and life in general.”
Similar to the elementary tournaments, the high school robotics team members compete in a new game each year. Last year’s game involved cones. This year, teams compete alongside an alliance team but also in direct competition with two other teams. They can score points through a sophisticated game course that includes flags, caps, platforms, and balls.
The robotics program is also beneficial to the entire River Valley. “This summer I did some training at an international tech company called Cerner, based in Kansas City,” Ethan says. “I asked them how tech companies choose locations.  They told me that the biggest driver of their choice is available talent.  I think that it is important that the River Valley, and Arkansas as a whole, understands that we must invest in the education of our young people and invest in STEM education so that we can be an active contributor to the technological revolution.”

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