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Students see the future through robots

Robotics programs drive interest and teach critical thinking

Brittany Lopez held the remote with care, keeping her eyes on the small robot in front of her.

She moved her fingers gingerly to maneuver the machine — which looked more like a two-wheel, upright tractor than the humanoid version people often think of — over to a blue Lego piece. Soon the robot’s mechanical arm had picked up the Lego, which was supposed to represent a miniature solar panel, and placed it on top of a small structure.

“When you’re a kid and growing up, you play with Legos,” said Brittany, a 14-year-old eighth-grader at Vista View Middle School in Fountain Valley. “This is basically like advanced Legos. It’s fun to play with the robots.”

Brittany and classmate Alyssa Rubio — who make up a team called Swag Money Demolishers — created their robot using a small computer, wiring and metal box as part of a STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — class and then competed against other students from the Ocean View School District in a robotics competition April 14 at Vista View.

“At first, it was complicated, with the computers and stuff, but then you get the hang of it,” Brittany said. “It’s really fun once you actually learn what to do.”

Dozens of students from Vista View and Mesa View middle schools and fourth- and fifth-graders from Westmont and Lake View elementary schools, in teams of two or three, worked over the school year to create their robots, said Sandi Lewis, a STEM teacher with the district who acted as mentor to the kids throughout the project.

Having students create and work with robots offers them a range of skills, she said, noting that the district once participated in a regional tournament through NASA at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena but that the program ended a few years ago.

“I think it really teaches them to think critically,” she said. “It gives them programming and computer science skills, as well as engineering skills, because they have to think of the task involved and design the robot to complete that task. A huge element of it is collaboration and how well they can work together.”

Patience and accuracy are key to making a robot, said Chris Lee, 16, the outreach coordinator for Ocean View High School’s 20-member robotics team, which judged the competition. Judging involved a points system based on criteria like accuracy and speed.

“There’s a lot of programming and coding involved,” the sophomore said. “You also have to know all the electrical components, what voltage goes where and make sure it doesn’t blow up. If it starts smelling like yogurt, you know something’s wrong. You also have to do basic mechanical work, like drilling holes and making sure it’s put together correctly and works.”

Thursday’s event, which is in its second year, was broken up into four categories:

In the Green City Challenge, competitors had their robots programmed to move wind turbines, sort trash, close off a dam and move solar panels. In the Moon Rover Obstacle, robots had to retrieve batteries, place flags in targeted areas and rescue a moon buggy. Competitors also battled in the Sumo Challenge, attempting to push each other’s robots off a board, and in the Remote Challenge, during which they used a mobile app to remotely control their robots around an obstacle course while racing another robot.

“The idea is there’s articulation so the elementary schools can see what opportunities are available at the middle schools and the middle schools can see what they can do in high school,” Lewis said.

Brittany and Alyssa said they created their first robot together in fifth grade at Lake View Elementary School.

They said they felt that their robot-making skills — which started off with just being able to have the machine move forward and do simple turns — have advanced over the last few years.

“Now we make it pick up things and retrieve things,” said Brittany, who said she might want to eventually work as an engineer. “We even made one that would detect a certain color and put an object in a certain spot for that color. Looking back on how the fifth graders do it and that’s where we started, we just see how much we’ve progressed.”

Chris said he was excited to see the younger kids interested in the technology.

He said he believes learning the technology now helps the students prepare for their futures.

“The future is controlled by computers,” said Chris, who with the high school group created a 29-by-31-inch robot that the younger kids played with Thursday. “If they can just learn this now and be ready for it as they grow older, I think it’s going to make a difference in making the world a better place.”

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