Saturday, February 18, 2012

Vanier College Robotics Club Gives me Hope

I tend to keep the college at which I teach and this blog on which I write as separate entities, as there is no actual affiliation between the two.  But I am a mentor for the Vanier Robotics Club "Build Team", and today, I really want to praise them and the entire Vanier Robotics Club for their accomplishments over the past four months.  I urge adults who fear that today's youth have become lethargic to read on.

Vanier College hosted Profuga 2012, the 11th edition of the CRC Robotics competition, inside its Sports Complex over the past three days (Thursday, Feb 16 to Saturday, Feb 18).  The annual provincial competition is run by a company called CRC Robotics.  On their website, they describe themselves and the competition as follows:

"CRC Robotics is a non-profit organization offering high-school and CÉGEP students a quality multidisciplinary competition in an entertaining, high-intensity environment to counter school dropout rates by inspiring tomorrow's leaders. Students are challenged to build a robot and to produce a video, web site, and kiosk presentation, where all tasks are entirely student-run."

This year's robotics challenge was ultimately a series of two-on-two capture the flag heats, where schools alternate who they compete against as well as alongside.  The terrain on which the robots did battle had ramped surfaces.  Designing a robot that can not only manipulate objects, but do so while translating up or down a 20 degree incline is no easy task.  However, the tech-savvy students composing the Vanier Build Team and those of tens of other schools were up to it.

It may surprise you to learn that the goal in this competition was not to chop other robots to bits with buzz saws or axes (I must admit that this was the particular image I used to associate with robotics competitions). But there are a couple of reasons why, in my view, a relay-race or capture the flag is a much better choice than a battle to the death for this particular competition:

(1) The event is longer when robots don't get sawed in half.
(2) Canada in general (and the province of Quebec in particular) has a fairly pacifist mindset.  

In addition to building a functioning robot, each school entering the competition needed to prepare a video, website, and kiosk presentation.  As such, the competition does not only stimulate budding engineers and technicians, but also encourages creative students to challenge themselves artistically.  And, while a few teachers do offer advice and tangible help along the way, the overall project is a student-managed one.

I can honestly say that many of the members of the Vanier Robotics Club currently have a clearer picture of what an engineering project entails than I did when I graduated from University with a mechanical engineering degree.  Yes, I possessed a wealth of theoretical problem-solving abilities, but I had no sense of terms like lead time, risk, or many other critical aspects of a real life project.  I learned those practical aspects for the first time while in industry.  By being exposed to a real multidisciplinary project so early on in life, these students have put themselves in a very good position to one day begin work in a technical field.

This was my first experience mentoring the robotics team let alone seeing a competition of this nature.  I really did not know what to expect.  I was initially surprised by the background knowledge that some of the students had with mechanical and electrical components.  They really wanted to do this thing on their own, and so my role as mentor was more like observer who occasionally gives advice.  It is possible that minimal teacher interference yielded a less competitive robot than it could have otherwise been.  The decision-making was ultimately left in the hands of the students, and the design process took more iterations than it otherwise might have.  On the plus side, members of a team learn the most when they make mistakes.

I cannot report the outcomes of the various aspects of the competition, as it is ongoing at the time of posting.  But, to me, the outcome is that thirty or so students got involved in a technologically demanding project out of sheer interest, and gained valuable skills and learned life lessons throughout the experience.  Whatever the outcome of the competition, I am certain that many team members will be back next year for another go.

So, why do I say that these students give me hope?  Well, as a physics teacher who addresses young adults, many of whom would rather be elsewhere, it is easy to become a bit jaded.  The Vanier Robotics Club reminded me that students come in all kinds, and that sprinkled into the student population are some incredibly motivated and dedicated individuals.  Beyond their interest in technology, these young adults have character and integrity.  It was inspiring to see them insert their spirits into this challenging team project.

When I was eighteen, and the December holidays rolled around, I used the free time to watch dumb movies and sleep.  Not these teenagers.  They spent their winter break figuring out how to effectively capture blocks with their robot, and how to get it to roll down an incline without damaging its drive motors.  That's right!  They spent their days off at school.

Many adults support the view that today's teenagers represent the generation of entitlement.  Yes, there are those who text during my lectures, and others who think they should pass because they showed up.  But it turns out that there are at least as many students on the other end of the spectrum - you just have to know where to find them.

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