Have you ever envied the robotics clubs and programs at your friends’ kids’ school and wished your own child could have that option? Robotics programs, at least good ones, do cost some money and require qualified teachers and dedicated coaches. But they are not as cost-prohibitive and resource-intensive as you think. Starting a robotics club at your school is most often just a matter of priority. Here are some tips on how your school can get started and the experience of one brand new school with a small operating budget that is already competing in robotics competitions.
FIRST LEGO Robotics and Early Engineering Skills
The big name in robotics for kids is FIRST. Students as young as 6 years old can start using early engineering principles to build robots out of LEGOs. Some schools offer robotics as an elective class or an after-school program. As students gain experience, they learn to program their robots to complete certain tasks and their designs become more and more complex. They can compete against like-minded peers in local, regional, national, and even international competitions. Along the way, these kids are learning valuable problem-solving skills, the value of team work and perseverance, and presentation skills.
Combine these experiences that are hard to come by in traditional K-12 schools with engaged students who are busy with their fun and challenging hobby after school and sometimes even on weekends and you have a formula for success. Study after study shows a correlation between academic success and participation in extracurricular activities, as well as fewer behavioral problems outside of school. And the opportunity to learn valuable early engineering skills at a young age can give students who otherwise might not consider STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers the interest and confidence they need to pursue one. Did we mention FIRST robotics leagues award college scholarships to promising engineers?
Start-up Costs for Robotics Team
Sounds great, right? Then why isn’t your child’s school offering robotics yet? In schools that are just trying to meet minimum standards in reading and math or struggling to make ends meet amid more budget cuts, the reason may be that extracurricular activities, such as the FIRST robotics program, have taken a back seat. The arts and physical education are difficult enough to fit in; why add a new program that none of the teachers know anything about? In reality, all it takes to start a robotics club at your school is a small investment in a starter kit and registration ($800-$1,200, most of which is reusable from year to year) and a dedicated coach over the age 18 (usually a teacher), no engineering experience required (until you reach high school; then you need professional mentors). Teams do need funding to travel to competitions, but many are local or regional, and many teams and schools hold successful fundraisers to cover some or all the costs. If a school is determined to offer robotics and realizes the return on their investment, chances are there is a way to make it happen.
A Return on Your Investment
Case in point is Horizon Science Academy Southwest Chicago, located at 5401 S. Western Avenue Chicago, IL 60609, in the West Englewood-Gauge Park neighborhood, a K-8 charter public school that opened its doors in the fall of 2014. From the start, it offered robotics as an elective class for grades 5-8. Ten students registered for the class, including four girls—one of which serves as the lead programmer/designer. The core team (competition team), which is a registered member of the FIRST LEGO League (FLL) meets once a week after school and has robotics as an elective class every school day. It’s led by middle school math teacher and robotics coach Val Alba, a former United States Marine with software engineering background.
While a bonus for certain, Mr. Alba’s technical background is not required to coach a team. Nor is a big budget. HSA is not a wealthy school, far from it. It is a charter public school authorized by Chicago Public Schools that operates on much less money per student per year than its neighboring traditional public schools. It predominantly serves minority and economically disadvantaged students. There are no entrance exams and no tuition fees. The only attendance requirement is to live in the city of Chicago. Despite its operating budget, robotics is part of HSA-Southwest Chicago’s wheelhouse, because it is a STEM-focused, college-prep charter school. Part of the school’s mission it to prepare its students for the jobs of the future.
The novice team still in its first year hasn’t had much time to work on their robot or compete, but they’ve gotten their feet wet in an FLL “scrimmage” in Aurora, Illinois against other area teams and participated in a statewide competition hosted by their sister school, Chicago Math & Science Academy. Out of 12 teams, which were primarily veteran teams from previous years of competition, HSA-Southwest came in 6th place in the scrimmage. Mr. Alba recounts, “I was proud of our team because I have only provided guidance, and the students were able to create and program the robot to perform the missions all by themselves. They have shown that they are able to apply problem-solving skills, and their knowledge of robotics, in order to perform the required missions for the competition.”
By that measure alone, the team is poised for growth and success, and not just in robotics. The spatial and abstract thinking, planning and organizational skills, and experience of competing under pressure, under the caring guidance of a dedicated coach, will reap dividends in college and careers. After one semester working with his team, Coach Alba says of the team’s lead programmer, sixth grader Leslie, that “it is clear that she has surprised herself with her abilities. She has done more than either her or I thought were possible for a 6th grader. After participating in robotics, her aspirations are very high, and I’m certain that she has the confidence now that she could clearly do anything that she puts her mind to.”
And with the huge shortage of women in STEM careers, not to mention the gaping hole for minorities to fill in the STEM fields, the price of a starter kit, using an otherwise empty classroom after school, and assigning a teacher or finding a volunteer to coach seems like a short order considering the potential gains.
Finding a FIRST League
Below is a breakdown of the different levels of FIRST robotics leagues if you are interested in advocating for a robotics program at your school. Individuals can form their own team outside of school, too, as long as they have a coach (see FLL’s “How Do I Get My Child on a Team?”)
- Jr. FIRST LEGO League (Jr. FLL): For ages, 6-9. “Teams use LEGO®bricks to build a model that moves and develop a Show-Me Poster to illustrate their journey.”
- FIRST LEGO League (FLL): For ages 9-14. Elementary and Middle School students “strategize, design, build, program, and test a robot using LEGO MINDSTORMS® technology.”
- FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC): For grades 7-12. Teams compete in using a team sports model, and participants can qualify for over $13.5 million in college scholarships.
- FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC): For grades 9-12. According its website, “It’s as close to ‘real-world engineering’ as a student can get, so FRC is for the most advanced robotics teams. Participants can qualify for over $13.5 million in college scholarships.
Kids are hungry to learn. Catch their interest in robotics and the STEM fields early. Our future will thank you.
Horizon Science Academy Southwest Chicago is operated by Concept Schools. Concept Schools in an Illinois-based 501(c)(3) not-for-profit charter management organization, which established its first school in Ohio in 1999, and has since expanded to 30 charter schools spread across Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Concept-managed schools have achieved a number of successes over the years including two National Blue Ribbon Awards by the U.S. Department of Education, the Federal Title I Distinguished School Award, “Excellent” and “Excellent with Distinction” and “Effective” ratings by the applicable state Departments of Education, and being named among high-performing schools in such academic research as “Needles in Haystack” of the Fordham Foundation. Concept was also was among the highest-performing charter networks in a 2013 research study by CREDO of Stanford University. Most recently, one of its member schools, Chicago Math & Science Academy, celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, received the highest College Persistence Rating from Chicago Public Schools for non-selective high school 2012 graduates. For more information about Concept Schools, please visit conceptschools.org.