By Spencer Burgin for SCN –
The Seward Middle School Robotics class is gearing up for their end of the year project, however their project is a little bit different than a paper, or an end of the year exam—they are battling it out on the SuGo arena. “SuGo”, is about as fun as it sounds; sumo wrestling with Lego robots. These Legos aren’t your typical Lego creations. They use ultrasonic sensors to sense other objects in order to defend themselves. A color sensor mounted near the wheels to sense the black and white SuGo arena to keep the robot from driving out of bounds. A computer “brain” and motors are mounted to the robot and software programs designed by the students are uploaded to make the robots perform tasks.
“I wish this is something that would’ve been offered when I was their age,” Seward Middle School computer coding and robotics teacher, Steve Fink said when asked about his robotics class.
Fink’s nine-week robotics class is broken into two halves. The first is a mid-term checkpoint that is a race on a white race board with a black line, known as “Follow the Line”, which is a common robotic program that could be used in even the most industrial robotic applications. The robot has to follow a line, which is a simple straight line at first, but becomes more challenging as it progresses towards the finish while bends in the line get increasingly sharper. Equipping the robot with a reflective light sensor allows the students to teach the robot the difference between the white board and the black line. Eventually the students time their robots to challenge each other to see who has the fastest robot loaded with the most efficient software. These fundamentals are applied and mastered before they move on to SuGo which is the second half of the course.
The next logical question one might ask is, “How do they program their robots?” The answer is through the Lego Mindstorms software, which includes an interface that is challenging to master, however, perfect for someone wanting to learn about robotics and programming.
“It was hard to learn at first,” Robotics student Sam Koster said, “But you get the hang of it after a while.”
Koster, like several of the other robotics students, were eager to not only show off their robots in the Sugo arena, but to show the programming software and how they had their own robots customized and setup. One of the classroom’s most unique robots was Sam and Anevay Ambrosiani’s robot. Their robot featured a simple, box like design that utilizes the concept, “less is more.”
“First we had to rebuild ours a lot,” Anevay said. “We realized that we were taking ideas from other people and building it into our robot,” she said, “So we decided to put ours into a box because nobody else did that.”
When asked about the duo’s unique robot, Mr. Fink was impressed with their level of ingenuity for the project.
“I think we have a chance to win the tournament,” Koster said, “It’s heavy so it’s hard to flip, so there aren’t that many spots where you can hold on to it and flip it.”
Another duo doesn’t want to hand over the trophy just yet. Josh DelaCruz and Trey Ingalls shared their robot, “Bulldog”, and were very excited to share their experience in the class, as well as their robot.
Trey has taken this class before, so he has the advantage of being able to look back and see what has worked in the past, and what didn’t work as well. One of Trey’s secrets was all about mass.
“Our robot is a lot heavier this time around,” Trey remarked, “The heavier the robot, the harder it is to flip over. “
When asked about what is the favorite part of the class, both Trey and Josh agreed that the partnership and the satisfaction of building a robot are the most rewarding aspect of the class.
Both of Fink’s two classes, robotics and programming, are exploratory. The idea behind exploratory classes is to see if the students like it. The exploratory program is ideal, because it allows students to have the opportunity to either pursue their interests, or simply discover whether or not a particular field is interesting to them.
“I went to a robotics competition with other kids,” Josh said, “And that’s what got me interested in this kind of stuff, so I got assigned here for exploratory.”
The class itself only has seven students, which is about the max for the class. “All seven of the students are following along and add code from the board,” Fink explains, “Sometimes there is something that is missed, and has to be explained. If there were more than seven students, it would be difficult for me to move along because the level of detail needed in order for each student to have a working program. Their computer programs will fail if the students don’t pay close attention to what they are doing.”
The interest level of the students is something that is very evident when visiting the classroom. When asked whether or not they enjoy the class, most chimed in and explained that they even like to go home and play around with the code after school.
Gabriel Wood, Lucas Brockman, and Sam Paperman want to pursue computer programming in college. Through the exploratory program at Seward Middle School, they were able to find a class that best suited their interests, and help prepare them for further coding classes in high school and beyond.