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With grant funding boost, Upper School robotics team charging up for first season
Posted 12/01/2016 06:21PM

Success in robotics is oh-so-sweet. Like when the machine you’ve built perfectly winds its way around a maze, touching nary a wall along the way. Or when your robot sinks a ball into a hoop with a precision that would make Dick Vitale squeal. But some of the best lessons come not in those moments of first-pumping success, but in head-in-hands failure.

That’s what Durham Academy robotics teachers Leyf Peirce Starling ’99 and Forrest Beck have seen in the first semester of the Upper School’s robotics classes and as the school’s nascent FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) team gears up for its inaugural season in spring 2017.

“It’s an opportunity for students to fail in a safe place. That sounds awful,” Starling said. “But it reinforces that practicing of determination, perseverance, dealing with disappointment, and figuring out how to pick yourself up and do it again. Because these robots definitely don’t work the first time.”

Failure may be part of the learning experience, but the Upper School’s robotics team has experienced a tremendous amount of success with more than a month to go before the FRC season officially kicks off. The team recently learned that it's the recipient of $9,000 in grant funding from NASA and AccessEngineering, a program that supports the success of people with disabilities in engineering.

The prestigious NASA FIRST Program Growth Grant — worth $6,000 and awarded to just 170 teams across the U.S. — fully covers the team’s first-year registration fee. Depending on how well things go this year, there is a possibility of an additional $5,000 in funding next year.

The AccessEngineering grant, worth $3,000, will help further the team’s mission of making robotics accessible to students with learning differences. The DA robotics team has opened up participation to students at The Hill Center, a partner and next-door neighbor of DA that serves K-12 students with learning differences. In addition, the team plans to work with the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) organization to make its written materials — such as a dense 12-page list of rules — accessible to all students.

Starling wrote the grants with student input. One of those who helped was senior Rohan Patel, who had been interested in engineering for “a pretty long time.” Having taken quite a few science and technology courses, he’d amassed a bank of applicable knowledge but had never built a robot before enrolling in the robotics science elective.

“It’s probably my favorite class that I’ve ever taken at DA, and the reason why is it’s one of those classes where you really get to apply knowledge that you’ve learned over a period of time,” Patel explained. “Through AP Comp Sci, I learned to program, and through Physics C and AP Physics, I learned some mechanical and electrical aspects. This is a class that brings together all of the science and technology stuff that you’ve learned at DA and that teaches you to apply it to actually make something.”

The experience has made Patel even more interested in engineering as a profession.

“Instead of being like, here’s a lab, follow it — [Starling and Beck are] like, here, this is what you have to build, go for it, figure out what you want to do,” he said. “There’s an open-endedness that gives you a new idea of being an engineer.”

The one-semester course is designed around an Arduino controller. Components like servos, proximity sensors and motion sensors can be brought together into the controller, which can use them to help the robot execute a task.

“The students are pretty much building everything on their own using these components – nothing is pre-built,” Beck said, noting that students can create some parts using the lab’s 3D printer. “The have to write their own code for the Arduino. It’s written in ROBOTC, a Java-esque language, so a lot of students are used to it.”

While some students, like Patel, came into the class with coding experience, not everyone did — and that’s just fine, Beck says. He and Starling have emphasized the importance of skills like planning and organization. At the beginning of the year, they asked students to jot down some strengths and weaknesses, and they used those notes to create well-balanced teams for projects.

Junior Lillia Larson had some experience working with her hands through the Upper School’s Engineering and Physics C courses, but she didn't have any experience with coding before enrolling in the robotics course. That made her a bit apprehensive — but any fears were quickly put to rest.

“It’s really impossible to know everything because there are all different aspects to robotics – there’s the programming side, there’s the engineering side, you can use geometry when you’re with building things with your hands,” Larson said. “So there are all of these people with different backgrounds, and you really have to kind of depend on one another for different parts of the project – you can’t do it all yourself. It really brings you together as a group.”

About half of the 32 students enrolled in one of the two sections of the robotics course — including Larson and Patel — plan to compete on the FRC team, and they’ll be joined by several students who have not taken the class.

During the fall semester, the team has met about once every two weeks to take on tasks like choosing a team name — they’re officially DARC Side (Durham Academy Robotics Club: Students In Design and Engineering) — creating a logo and mascot, and brainstorming fundraising ideas. Students plan to raise money for travel, equipment and the like through fundraisers like cookie care packages that students can send to one another during the exam period.

The team also welcomes support from parents and corporate sponsors. Information on how to support the team is available on the student-maintained Team #6502 website.

The 2017 season officially begins Jan. 7, when DA will host a kick-off event to be attended by several other teams. Attendees will watch a FIRST webcast during which organizers will introduce the game — specifics vary from year to year — including what the robot must accomplish, how points can be earned and rules. In the 2016 game, robots were required to pick up a ball from the field, aim it at all small hole on a tower, and throw a ball into it (a YouTube video explains that game).

Teams will leave the kick-off event with a “kit of parts” that includes everything needed to create a working base robot and software.  

Following the event will be an intensive build season of six weeks. Since club members won’t meet as part of a regular class, the robotics lab will be available for them to plan and work on their robot during tutorial, lunch, after school and on weekends. At the conclusion of the six-week period — this year, on Feb. 21 — students must cease any work on their robot and must wrap it in a bag, sealed with a tag to ensure that it hasn’t been opened.

Then, it’s on to the district competitions. The DARC Side team will compete in one district competition in Winterville on March 3, and then another in Raleigh on March 23, with hopes of qualifying for the state competition, which is held from March 31 to April 2 at Campbell University.

After unbagging their robot at each competition site, the team will have only a couple of hours before each competition to make any final tweaks. Some teams have two robots — one production model and one standby that’s used for development while the other is bagged. These teams can take detailed logs of what changes they make on their standby robot, and then quickly apply those changes to their production model on competition day.

“Since we probably won’t have the funding to do that this year, we’ll just take advantage of those couple of hours before the event to tweak the system and make sure it works OK,” Beck explained.

The new robotics program at the Upper School is a logical progression from DA Middle School’s FIRST Lego League program, which started with a single team in 2014-2015 and last year fielded three teams. Adding to the Middle School’s STEM offerings this year is a new STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) elective offered by digital learning coordinator Karl Schaefer. All of that bodes well for the future of the Upper School’s FRC program.

Whether students are interested in pursuing engineering in college or not, valuable skills are to be gained through studying robotics, the instructors assert.

For those who are passionate about science and technology, it’s a great way to explore all of the different fields of engineering because it involves mechanical, electrical and computer engineering, Beck said.

For all students, it’s a terrific way to build character and develop executive functioning skills of time management and organization, Starling said. Many of those skills are honed in the failures and successes of the game.

“And the cool thing with this is you don’t just score a goal and win the game,” Starling said. “You can score a goal and you can still make your robot do it better — there’s always room for improvement.”

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