Students learn valuable skills at robotics camp

Middle school students in a summer robotics camp held at Winters High School campus built, programmed and battled robots.
Animation by Matthew Keys

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The rules to the competition are simple: lift as many jacks over a one foot tall partition as possible in two minutes. When the time is up, the team with the least number of jacks on their side wins.

For a human, the task is child’s play. For a robot, things get more complicated.

Over the course of a week, middle school students in a summer robotics camp held on the Winters High School campus and hosted by Michael Challender built and programed robots. With help from Challender and several current and former members of the high school robotics team, the students gained skills in engineering and coding.

Julia Escamilla, who just graduated from the high school last month, volunteers with the summer robotics camp. This program was her capstone project last year. Escamilla is committed to sharing her knowledge and love of robotics with younger students.

“I wanted to do something kind of different,” Escamilla says when asked about her inspiration. She heard that students at the middle school were petitioning their parents for a robotics program like the high school’s, so she knew there was interest.

“We’re trying to venture out more,” Escamilla says of the high school robotics team.

Marcos Del Toro, a current high school student, is also helping with the middle school camp.

“I saw the robots once or twice,” he says.

“I thought that I wanted to try to do that.”

He joined the club, and is now helping the campers troubleshoot their mechanical and technical issues.

“I’m just a big nerd I guess,” he says with a laugh when talking about his interest in robotics.

Both Escamilla and Del Toro are passionate about providing this opportunity for the younger students. Together they listed the life skills that they had learned from the robotics team. They pointed out that on top of technical skills, teammates also need to become good communicators and learn how to work to a deadline.

On the day of the competition, the campers were busy putting the finishing touches on their robots before their final deadline.

Challender pointed out that over the course of the week one student was able to build a robot that nobody from either the middle school or the high school had attempted.

After looking at a picture of a robot that moved on tank treads instead of wheels, Jack Bryant decided that he would try to replicate it.

“I watched him do it. Nobody helped him,” Challender said.

“If we give them access to the tools and stuff,” Challender paused and gestured to the robots on the tables and the children perfecting them, “there’s what they can do.”

“I just thought it was pretty cool,” Bryant said about his choice, then continued to work on his robot.

Jonathan Hughes, another student in the program, took a few moments to check on his progress. After moving his robot from the table to the floor, he guided it around the tables and chairs using a hand-held controller. When he came upon a fallen water bottle, he used the robotic claw to pick it up and give it to Bryant.

Bryant smiled as he placed the bottle back in the robot’s claw. The robot quickly fell over. Instead of being frustrated, Hughes just laughed and went back to tinkering.

This exact scenario is why Jacob Hughes put a few extra wheels on his robot. This way, when his robot picks up too much weight, it can fall back on its training wheels.

Along with the physical construction, the campers have also learned to write code. As Del Toro explained it, the code is something like the robot’s brain. The students type up the instructions, and that code dictates what the robot will do.

While the campers were busy getting ready, Cloie Brugn, another high school volunteer, was put in charge of running the competition. She took a few moments to explain the event. Each match starts with 15 seconds of autonomous run time. This is when the campers’ coding becomes important.

The robots are set up outside of the pitch, and when the match begins Brugn’s computer sends the signal to the robots to begin their autonomous program. This program is run by the code that the students have been working on over the week.

“It’s basically a code to move the robot forward for most of the time and then stop,” camper Tristan Cooper says.

Once the autonomous run time is complete, the campers have one minute and 45 seconds to put as many jacks onto their opponents’ side of the partition as possible. They work in teams of two, but don’t know who their teammate will be until the competition begins.

After a week of learning coding, engineering and teamwork, the campers were ready to face the challenge.

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