Students at Mount Elizabeth Middle/Secondary School (MEMSS) are taking a ‘byte’ of the world of robots through new robotics classes.
Kim Wilkinson is the teacher for the Grade 9 and 10 robotics class, while Nick Dahler teaches the Grade 11 and 12 mechatronics class, which is a branch of engineering that focuses on the engineering of both electrical and mechanical systems.
Wilkinson and Dahler started teaching the classes after responding to an email a couple of years ago asking if any teachers would be interested in starting a robotics club. For there, it turned into an elective course for students, with the mechatronics class having its first run last school year and the robotics class following for its first year this past September.
“I think some people just don’t realize they are interested in it, right, and once they start playing with it, it’s kind of fun,” Wilkinson said.
“The robotics students are a different group than the sports kids or the chess kids,” Dahler added. “They’re somewhere in between.”
Wilkinson said that in competitions and when working with robots, students are usually partnered up. However, due to the small class size of 16 students, each one got their own building kit, which also helps with COVID-19 safety.
She started the class this year with one group project involving a simple build, to help the less experienced students begin to learn proper coding and building. From there, they moved to the sumo challenge which involves building a robot that can push another one out of a ring on the ground.
After the students had the basics, Wilkinson had a list of challenges and projects to choose from, or they were free to design their own robot.
Wilkinson and Dahler said there’s a range of skill levels in both of the classes, with some students having years of experience and others trying their hand at robotics for the first time.
Grade 9 student Tristan Hall has been involved with robotics since he was 12 and decided to join an after-school robotics club at his elementary school.
He and his friend decided to compete in a regional World Robot Olympiad (WRO) Competition, and did well enough to go through to provincials, then nationals, then to Costa Rica in 2016 to represent South Africa at the international competition.
“I enjoy problem solving, like the challenge,” Hall said. “But it also, you get to be creative with how you do things, like I got to choose exactly how I wanted the bot to look and I get to choose how I program it and everything.”
Grade 10 student Kayla Abram has been interested in robotics since entering a competition in Grade 8, where she won first and second place in the two obstacles her robot had to face.
“It is our future, so I wanted to get a basic understanding of it, and my brother loves robotics so I kind of wanted to do it, as well,” Abram said.
Joining the class this year, Abram was a bit hesitant when she realized she was the only female in the class, but she was passionate about robotics and didn’t let that stop her.
“At first I was kind of iffy about it, but I kind of, like, ended up making friends with [the boys] so it ended up being a lot of fun.”
Abram’s favourite thing she’s made so far is her robotic hand. It took her only two hours to make the initial design and about a week to finish all the coding and extra touches to make the final product.
She’s now looking into careers that combine both robotics and science, two of her favourite subjects.
“I made the robotic arm. I kind of want to go into science as well so I can do, like, prosthetics because that’s robotics and science.”
The MEMSS robotics club was started in 2018 thanks to a donation of several robotics kits by Rio Tinto to MEMSS, St. Anthony’s Catholic School, and Nechako Elementary. Rio Tinto also helped sponsor the competition between the three schools that MEMSS hosted in 2019.
Wilkinson said one of the goals with the robotics classes is to see how they’re used in real-world settings, especially industrial ones.
Dahler said that last year, Rio Tinto sent in one of their programmers to the mechatronics class to see the students’ robots and give the class tips and tricks, as well as show them how robotics can become a career.
One student, Nathan Green, in light of the current pandemic, made an automatic sanitizer dispenser.
“It’s all about realizing robots are everywhere,” Wilkinson said. “The best part of this is the kids are exploring and they’re all learning something that they’re interested in, but they’re also learning, like, problem solving, right. They’re trying to figure [things] out, they’re doing testing, right, they’re making their own prototype, and working together.”
In competitions, pre-programmed robots complete a series of challenges, such as pushing things over, jumping hurdles, sorting blocks by colour, or escaping a maze. There is also usually a time limit to complete challenges.
However, both Wilkinson and Dahler said the in-class work is project-based and they’re focusing more on getting the students to learn coding and building and be creative in their ideas, rather than getting their robots completely perfect and automatic.
“I think the idea of them coming up with original ideas, I really like how they are able to build something like this, with a set of instructions, as an initial project, but they take it from there and do basically whatever they need to solve a problem,” Dahler said. “And they all come up with original ideas.”
Hall and Abram want to continue with the robotics and mechatronics classes and hope they’re able to get other current and incoming MEMSS students to give the classes a try.
“It’s really fun and no matter what you think your skill level is…all you have to do is try and you can do some level of goodness,” Hall said.
“Definitely do it,” Abram added. “Even if you’re the only girl, definitely do it. It’s a lot of fun and it challenges your brain.”
Keep scrolling to see more photos of the incredible things the MEMSS robotics students have built.