Shannon Kennedy, Elise Wellman, and Kendra Castagna built the winning robot.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — As a child, Elise Wellman played with Lego robotics.
But on Friday, it was a whole lot different game.
National Guardsmen dropped a box full of parts with a manual. She and her fellow Pittsfield High School students were told to open to a page that just had pictures.
Now build a remote-controlled robot that will open a mailbox, pull a block out, and then transport it to another location, they were told.
"This is really tricky but we figured it out. It can be challenging but we overcame the challenge," Wellman said.
In fact, Wellman's team of her, Shannon Kennedy, and Kendra Castagna built the best one. Wall-e, as they named the robot, completed the course in under two minutes.
"We did well. We got a minute and 54 seconds and the next person got over three minutes. Hopefully, nobody gets under that time," Castagna said as they waited for the last couple of teams left to finish.
The next team's claw fell off right near the end of course. The last group was on pace but stumbled in controlling the robot's direction, which was done through a camera mounted on the robot and broadcasted to a screen for the students to view. Wall-e had won.
The day was part of the Massachusetts National Guard's Urban Search and Rescue Seminar. For the last two years, the Guard has taken the science, technology, engineering, and math program (STEM) to schools throughout the state.
"STEM isn't always boring. It's not lab work it is something hands-on, something more physical," said Spec. Luis Diaz, the school program coordinator for Massachusetts.
A handful of members of the National Guard were on hand to help but overall, the goal was to have the students figure every step of the way themselves. They had to do the wiring and coding to make sure the remote control worked -- a particular challenge for Wellman, Kennedy, and Castagna as they had to systematically figure out how the wiring went together only to figure out that they had a faulty piece.
"We finally got the claw to move a certain way, we were trying for so long," Castagna said.
They built the robots with small parts, requiring the students to work together in order for it all to come together properly. And they had to communicate as one student manned the controls and another watched the video feed to direct them where to go.
"We have a bucket of parts and we give the kids a mission. Hey, your objective is all through remote control and video feed, find something retrieve it and bring it to a safe point," Diaz said. "They started with just parts and they had to do their own wiring, reconfiguring, and pre-planning."
Some 40 students had taken part in it voluntarily. P.J. Hunt is the local National Guard liaison and had suggested bringing the program to the school to a guidance counselor. STEM Coordinator Maureen Boino then took it from there and it didn't take long before enough students had signed up.
"They learned teamwork. They learned what to do to troubleshoot if something goes wrong and how to go back and fix it and make it better. They've learned how to do a little bit of programming, how to actually build a functioning robot to complete a task, and to take direction. It is OK to make a mistake and that's really important for our youth these days, to learn from their mistakes," Boino said.
"The camaraderie that has come out of this amongst these 40 kids has just been really amazing. They are helping each other."
Diaz referred to the program as a "Trojan horse" for STEM. He said the program is designed to be fun and hands-on to help get students interested in it. Kennedy said she signed up for that type of experience. She knows she wants to go into engineering but exactly what field is still a question.
It required a lot of trial and error just figuring out how to build a robot that will accomplish the mission. But, eventually, every team put what they created to the test.
"I want to go into engineering so I thought it would be a good experience to see if some type of robotic engineering would be something I'd be interested in doing," Kennedy said.
Castagna, on the other hand, has an interest in civil engineering. But that may change after Friday's experience.
"Getting to see this definitely made me interested more," she said, later adding that she enjoyed "seeing the before and after, the accomplishment is cool, knowing that you created it."
The daylong competition is new for Pittsfield High School but one PHS teachers want to bring back again. Computer Teacher Lynn Gracie-Rogers has been interested in robotics, has some in her classroom, and hopes to see more students get involved. But, there really hasn't been much of a robotics program at the school for a number of years.
"I think this is amazing. I wish we can do it every year," Gracie-Rogers, adding that she is particularly interested in getting more girls into coding and computer programming.
Bringing it back another year is only one piece of what is happening at Pittsfield High School for STEM technology.
Physics teacher Tamala Sebring is putting together the details on bringing robotics into the curriculum. She's been working with General Dynamics on a potential sponsorship that will bring robotics into the daily classroom.
"Currently we have a computer-assisted drafting class that is one semester long and we have the intro to engineering class that runs concurrently. Then we switch. It is rather difficult to just do CAD or just do engineering. We're actually looking at taking the two classes and teaching them together and using the robotics to facilitate that," Sebring said.
"The kids could learn how to draft, draw up plans on the computer, and they can build the robots and do some testing."
Sebring said there had been some level of robotics in the past but it was more of a club. This would be a full class the students could take.
"It will be a lot of problem-solving but it will also help the kids learn why they need to learn computer science, how they can put science and math together and make it do things," Sebring said.
Boino said the STEM education at Pittsfield High School is growing by "leaps and bounds."
"We tried to have a robotics program here probably eight to 10 years ago. Things changed, it didn't continue. We are trying to rebuild the STEM program here and it is growing by leaps and bounds. Pittsfield High is really great at providing a very strong STEM education right now," Boino said.
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