Working in pairs at lab stations, Byram Hills High School students are trying to figure out what it will take for their robot to win the first fall challenge, a game called Triball. Should they add a claw, a pusher or a component to gobble up the curved, pyramid-shaped balls and spit them back out when the time is right?
Welcome to the robotics classroom, where students in the Robotics I, Robotics II and Robot Master semester-long electives work and learn together in a collaborative environment, with advanced students mentoring beginners.
Students use the VEX Robotics platform to build, program and drive robots. As they face increasingly difficult challenges, students assemble more complex robots from scratch that may include a ramp, lift or claw.
“This class challenges students to be relentless problem-solvers and the robots are the medium to get them to exercise that part of their brain,” said robotics teacher Peter Lichten. “They will be better able to handle all other problems they encounter in life.”
On an October day, students were preparing their robots to battle in two-on-two matches in a fight for dozens of hard-to-manipulate Triballs. Students compete alongside - and against - every member of the class, which helps build community in the classroom.
They learn technical skills, including the mechanics of building a robot with tools, the C++ language or block coding to program the robots, and how to incorporate electrical systems to provide power.
“The goal is to make it look effortless, but it’s never easy,” Mr. Lichten says. “When the robot finally does what they wanted it to do, the students have a real sense of satisfaction on their faces. They’re real, authentic smiles.”
The robotics program, which began with Robotics I in the 2017-2018 school year, is thriving. Students test their skills in regional competitions and the classroom is buzzing with constant conversation about retooling and testing the robots.
Students enjoy the hands-on class, which allows them to be creative while deepening their collaboration skills. And it’s fun, especially when it’s time for battle, with robots, which students drive with remote controllers, whizzing around the field.
Senior Timothy Petrenko, a Robot Master student, said it’s awesome to be getting a head start on his goal of working in the field of robotics. “It’s the perfect blend of every aspect of engineering,” he said of the robotics program. “I feel as if I found my passion here.”