“Do the robots fight each other?” This was the first question the coaches got from students when we proposed the idea of an elementary robotics club.
The word robot evokes images of aluminum automatons with claw arms and a robotic voice or robots battling to the bitter end. The robot we built as the Cooks Corners Vex Vikings is much different, and it inspires students to collaborate in order to compete.
This summer Meghan Oglesby and Annie Brady were awarded a robotics grant to bring a robotics team to Cooks Corners Elementary School. Interested fifth-grade students from Cooks Corners Elementary chose to submit a rather intense application in order to join the first robotics team in Valparaiso.
The application included past STEM experiences, extracurricular activities, qualities that they would offer to the team, and students are required to hold a C+ or above average. Eleven students made it onto the inaugural team.
Despite having the role as coaches, here the adults were not the experts! The students were tasked with researching the design of robot, arena, and successful competition strategies, along with being the builders, drivers, and pit crew. Robotics coaches delegated different jobs to be ready for competition.
Each week there were rotating groups of builders, PR, T-Shirt designers, and researchers. Students were able to play a vital role whether they were using their hands, taking notes, creatively forming plans or composing a letter to ask for funds from the PTO.
While it might sound daunting, this dedicated group often asked to have extra time to work during the week.
The hard work was not without difficulties, however. Two weeks before the competition, the robot stopped working, leaving the students to dismantle certain parts and solve problems. On another occasion, the robot would steer forward and right, but not left. This meant more problem solving and collaboration on the part of the students.
The most recent problem to arise happened the week of the competition. The robot’s brain needed a major update. The week of the competition, students were frantically researching how to update the Vex robot’s brain!
After connecting the brain to the remote control and multiple sensors, locating USB cords and ports, and downloading the Vex utility program, some hours later, the robot was cured. The students were able to use multiple tools to help fix each problem along the way, including Google, manuals and their intuition.
The problem solving and teamwork skills of the students were certainly put to the test in the heat of these moments, and what a joy for us all to come out on top.
As coaches and teachers, we relish situations that allow us to support and facilitate, rather than lead, which we found to be the case in robotics.
Students are excited to compete. Students see the competition as the culminating event of the season. As coaches we know that students have learned life skills this school year that go above and beyond learning how to build a robot.
The collaboration and problem solving strategies and skills these fifth-graders learned this competition season will be helpful to them not only next year in middle school and high school, but also in life.
The students in robotics put it best when asked about how they would use what they have learned in the future. One student said, “the problem-solving skills will help me in the future to become an engineer.” Another student’s final thoughts on being on the robotics team, “It helps you grow as a person!”