Robotics in the Classroom
By: Heather O’Keeffe Gardner
Photo Credit: Wyatt McSpadden
Imagine a high school gym filled with cheering parents and fans. A contingent of the school’s marching band plays the fight song while the cheerleaders and school mascot lead the crowd in cheers.
A high school basketball game? Girls’ volleyball tournament? Pep rally for the football team? Nope.
This crowd is gathered for the regional BEST robotics competition. Teams on the gym floor concentrate, guiding their robots through the designated challenges. When a robot succeeds in completing its task, the crowd goes wild and the team celebrates. In cases where the robot breaks or fails to complete its task in the allotted time, the people in the stands groan in sympathy with the dejected team members. After hours of competition, the winning team carries off the championship trophy and bragging rights. The next stop is the state championship competition.
Robotics clubs have long been popular in Texas schools. Two programs—BEST (Boosting Engineering, Science, and Technology) Robotics and FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) in Texas—have been inspiring kids to develop their STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) skills to create functioning robots. And now the University Interscholastic League (UIL) is partnering with BEST and FIRST to create a pilot program for UIL state championship robotics competitions. Texas is the fourth state in the country to develop this kind of program.
All of Texas’s 1,400 UIL member schools will be eligible to participate, making it the largest school-based robotics program in the country. In the December 2015 announcement about the pilot program, UIL Executive Director Dr. Charles Breithaupt said, “There is a clear need to prepare today’s students for the jobs of tomorrow. ... STEM is a priority for UIL, and FIRST and BEST have a proven track record of success in preparing students for a future in STEM careers through robotics competitions.”
As a result of this partnership, Texas will now host two UIL state championship robotics competitions. The FIRST state championship will take place in Austin July 28-30, 2016, as the culmination of the spring FIRST robotics season. The second will be held in November, in conjunction with the BEST state championship competition. Qualification for these championship competitions will be based on team performance during the regular FIRST and BEST competition seasons. The UIL championship will be separate from the FIRST and BEST championships, meaning eligible teams will be able to participate in both.
Schools that win these UIL state championships will have the same bragging rights as those that win contests in the state UIL academics, athletics, and music categories. Some robotics team sponsors are even talking about varsity letters for participants. Having a statewide competition for robotics recognizes the importance that STEM-related fields of study play in our state’s future.
One of the goals of the UIL pilot program is to engage students who have not been involved in the traditional UIL academics, athletics, and music competitions. As robotics competitions become more popular, and as schools are able to tout their successes in the UIL competitions, the number of programs and participating students should grow each year. In addition, having UIL-sanctioned school-based teams will allow students who may not otherwise have access to robotics programs to explore STEM-related activities. One goal of the new UIL robotics programs will be to increase the participation of girls, minorities, and low-income students. The UIL stamp of approval may also make district funds available to school teams that had previously relied on sponsorships, donations, and fundraising efforts.
History of the Programs
BEST was founded in 1993 by two engineers from Texas Instruments. In its first year, BEST sponsored 14 robotics teams, with a total of 221 students participating. Since then, BEST has spread throughout Texas and now has teams in other states. In 2015, 350 Texas schools had BEST teams, totaling about 6,200 students.
BEST provides each team with a robotics starter kit free of charge. While each school can only form one BEST team, there is no limit to the number of students allowed on each team. Adult mentors, who can be teachers or volunteers from the community, provide guidance to the team, but the students are responsible for designing, building, and programming their robots.
At the beginning of each season, BEST provides a challenge that each robot must complete. It can be anything from performing a task to navigating a maze. Teams then have six weeks to design, build, and test their creation. The robots are put through their paces at local competitions, and the robots that complete the challenges most efficiently win and move on to the next round.
In addition to the performance of their robots, teams are judged on their project notebook, which chronicles the efforts to design, build, and program their robots. They are also required to do a marketing presentation and pass a conference exhibit interview with judges. Teams are also judged on their school spirit and sportsmanship.
The competition season closes with a state championship held each year in the fall. The 2016 BEST state competition will take place in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area in November. The UIL state championship will take place at the same event, and school teams will be able to compete in both the BEST and UIL championship competitions.
FIRST was founded in Manchester, New Hampshire, in 1989 and sponsored its first teams in Texas in 2010. During the last competitive season, 15 percent of Texas high school students—roughly 7,000 kids—participated in FIRST-sponsored robotics programs. FIRST expects that number to grow as a result of the partnership with UIL. The organization hopes to expand into rural areas, where students don’t always have the same access to mentors from tech and engineering firms that kids in more urban areas have.
There are four categories of FIRST competitions: Lego League, Jr., Lego League, Tech, and Robotics. During this first year of the pilot program, UIL will sponsor Tech and Robotics championships. The Tech challenge is a field game where teams work in alliance against other teams. The competition’s theme changes each year, and FIRST provides teams with a starter kit of the parts that they will need. Schools may have more than one FIRST team, but each team needs to declare its category at the beginning of the season.
Once teams receive the season’s challenge, they have eight to ten weeks, depending on their competition category, to design, build, and program their robots. This year’s Tech challenge is based on a mountain rescue scenario. In the Robotics competition, teams collaborate to breach their opponents’ fortifications and launch boulders through their towers before capturing them.
As with the BEST programs, FIRST teams are also judged on their design notebook, marketing skills, and sportsmanship.
Robots in Action
Shawn Schmuck, a teacher at Keller High School, has coached robotics teams for the past four years —two at Keller and two in Fort Worth ISD—and he is planning to have his robotics teams compete in the UIL pilot program next fall. This year, he has 22 students on four teams participating in his robotics program, and 45 are already on the list for next year.
Schmuck says the new UIL program offers many benefits. “It opens up possibilities for the students, and it is a significant item for students to put on their resume as they apply to colleges. Also, every UIL program the school participates in goes toward recognition and awards for the school.”
Schmuck has seen firsthand the positive effect the robotics program has had on his students. The students learn how to manage time, materials, and money—all skills that will serve them well in future business endeavors. In addition, they learn how to work as a team and succeed in a competitive environment. “The team pulls together a diverse group of students, forcing them to depend on each other and providing an opportunity to make high-quality friends,” says Schmuck. Many of Schmuck’s students have never participated in extracurricular activities before, but now they spend hours each week working with team members on their robots.
Paul W. Johnson, the robotics coach at Galena Park High School, echoes Schmuck’s comments about teamwork, saying, “The major benefit of having a competitive robotics team is that the students get to learn how to work together and overcome the challenges of the current game.”
Beyond the teamwork skills the students acquire, they learn lessons that complement the STEM concepts being taught in their regular classes. Through the robotics program, they are learning about electricity, forces, and computer programming. Johnson says that joining the robotics team “exposes students to the various engineering processes that are used to build a successful robot.”
Most of Schmuck’s team members are planning on majoring in engineering-related fields. “Robotics is an extracurricular activity that directly prepares them for their career, and it gets them excited to go into the engineering field,” he says. “Colleges like to see robotics on a high school application, and there are many scholarships available for robotics students.”
At Galena Park High School, many of Johnson’s graduating seniors are the first members of their families to attend college. According to him, robotics opens up avenues of study that weren’t available to these students before. He hopes that participating in robotics encourages his student to pursue an engineering-related degree in college.
Get Your School Involved!
Interested in starting a robotics team at your school and participating in the UIL pilot program? The UIL website has more information about the pilot program as well as details on the BEST and FIRST robotics programs at www.uiltexas.org/academics/stem/robotics. You can find more information on starting a BEST team at www.bestinc.org/uilchampionship/ and a FIRST team at firstintexas.org/uil/.
For Texas to continue to lead the way in STEM-related jobs, our students need to be prepared for careers involving the very principles that robotics programs instill. Robotics programs give students a leg up as they prepare for college and their careers outside of school. Plus, robots are really, really cool.