By Amanda Dollar
“Yes!” Both hands fly into the air— an internationally recognized symbol of joy. The plastic “build” stayed on top of the pink paper orgami cube! The EV 3 Lego robot whirred back to home base, slightly bulky from the attached arm that used such a precisely calculated combination of restraint and force to launch the missle.
The entire experience— from the catapult attachment to the robot’s movement— is student designed. Ryann Dove, a fifth grade student at Natchitoches Magnet School, beamed as her robot returned.
“I was so happy when it landed,” she said. “I was like don’t go off the mat, don’t go off the mat!” She moved away from the school practice area. It’s another team’s turn to place their creation on the mat.
Natchitoches Magnet students are preparing to compete in the Regional Autonomous Robotics Circuit. Three times a year RARC organizes competitions that encourage elementary, middle, and high school students to study science, technology, engineering, and math. The carrot in this endeavor is the chance to play with LEGOs and learn programming. The stick can be showcasing these skills in a series of increasingly challenging competitions.
As the year goes on, the competition tasks get harder. The robots are expected to grow as their creators grow in skill. Teams have months to study the guidelines, plan their tasks, design, program, test, improve, retest, repeat. Then judges release a mystery task the day of the competition. Coaches are required to sit in chairs away from their school tables. Students take the lead with no adult input. They have one hour to prepare.
Austin Carter clutched the sides of his head and groaned. The day is off to a rocky start. His team can’t find their builds and must comb through a selection of spare parts. Their robot keeps wandering away from the white square that represents an important way station. Hours of practice and meticlously programmed movements go out the window if the placement of the robot is off by even centimeters. The mystery task waits for their attention.
It can get overwhelming. That’s kind of the point.
Each competition year has an appointed scientific theme. This RARC mission centers on a station for marine biologists. Robots must cart supplies and help scientists study echolocation. RARC introduces students to different branches of science, hands-on STEM, and the very real world work of problem solving. Austin’s team practiced that last skill. He called out possible solutions as team members moved to make corrections within the appointed time. This is a vital part of the competition.
Students have an opportunity to correct their mistakes with each round. Cheers erupt from their section of the school table. “We did it!” Austin smiled. They’re ready for another chance to show the judges what their robot can do.
It’s a cycle of planning, implementation, editing and improving.
Tears are not uncommon, especially in the elementary division, one RARC volunteer shared. But robotics is more than success or failure. Here students have the opportunity to explore a world that is both very academic and very different than the work they do on traditional school days.
“It’s fun,” explained Maddison Gorum. “It’s fun because I get to hang out with my friends. And it teaches me what I want to do when I grow up because I want to program.”