Hillsboro bots a stepping stone to career skills

HILLSBORO—Hillsboro High students have an opportunity to not only get hands-on experience with engineering and coding, but then put that hands-on experience in a competitive arena through a robotics class.

The class, which is under the larger umbrella of the school’s TSA program, teaches students how to design and problem solve, program and build while thinking critically and creatively.

Educator Creigh Bell said the competitions “are the epitome of building and the experience and seeing how it compares to others.”

This Saturday, Hillsboro robots will be taking to the arena to compete with surrounding schools in a tournament.

Bell said he was inspired to offer the robotics class after Hillsboro students brought home a national championship in radio-controlled transportation in 2008. Bell said he was guided to VEX Robotics through TSA.

Bell said, as a single class, robotics is a stepping stone, a mid-level, technical level course within the engineering and applied math pathway.

What’s cool is to have students go on to other Project Lead the Way courses. We are prepping students to walk out and become production engineers, technologists, working with conveyor lines.”

The competitive nature of the class—with participation in at least two tournaments built into the curriculum—means students must test their creations under challenging conditions.

It develops grit in students. It’s entertaining. It is challenging. Kids get to have their hands on materials 85 percent of the time. They’re trying to figure out how to make things work. I think we’re in a culture where that’s diminishing,” he said.

Bell added, in the robotics class, students experience success through having tangible final results. He pushes not just their analytical skills but also creativity.

Get out of the box. I grind that into kids. Get off YouTube and what everyone else is running. Our best innovators in the world are going, ‘OK, get all the junk out of my mind. What does this thing need to do? Now, what do I have to make that happen?’ Rather than, ‘How can I modify what someone else is doing?’ and putting themselves in a box,” Bell said.

Students who initially sign up for robotics quickly realize the “hours and hours of work” invested in a robot. Students can only take the class one time but may participate in subsequent years as an extracurricular activity.

All students begin with analyzing a basic claw bot—a small robot with a single grasping arm mounted to a platform with wheels. Students must then build and program their own claw bot.

We study the parts, build a claw bot and have a concept of the current game,” Bell said.

Each year, VEX creates a different competition with various tasks a robot must perform to score points. Games have ranged from shooting baseball size foam balls into nets to stacking 6-inch colored cubes as tall as possible to flipping and placing colored disks much like the game Go.

Robots are designed to address the specific tasks of each game, which includes not only the physical capabilities of the bot but also programming commands and movements.

Bell pushes his students to think creatively about how to build a robot to meet the demands of the game. However, first students must understand the fundamentals of engineering, constructing and programming a robot.

We study programming for a while and modify the claw bot and look at different designs as far as building a custom solution. […] The game has been out six to seven months by the time we get to it,” Bell said.

By the time students begin building a robot custom-designed for the game at hand, they have a thorough understanding of many programming, design and mechanical principles.

When they walk out of this classroom, they have to [know how one] tooth pattern number combined with another tooth number creates gear ratios; how electricity gives their robot power. If they can’t do that, they’re not ready to go to the next level,” he said.

Taking students through programming and engineering principles means some students are not working on their custom, game-designed robot until well into the fall. That custom bot will continue to be modified, in a typical year, as students work their way through competitions and finesse their programming and design.

Bell said, while the class is competitive and fun, it establishes and furthers principles that will stick with students far into the future.

There are real-world applications, like at AGCO, they have automation. There’s programming there just like the robotics in class. You start to see the bigger scale. This machine in class is scoring points, but how does that translate to making me a dollar later on,” Bell said.