Robots, Activate: A Look at the SHS Robotics Program

Stamford High School students work together to build and program robots as part of the Stamford Robotics program, now in its second year of existence at Stamford ISD.
Stamford High School students work together to build and program robots as part of the Stamford Robotics program, now in its second year of existence at Stamford ISD.

By Will McClure

 

Stamford High School has had a long tradition of students achieving success in many areas. Whether it be in athletics, FFA, FCCLA or UIL academics, the students have been able to meet and succeed in whatever challenge is presented to them. One of these new challenges that students have not only succeeded in, but have had a lot of fun learning in is the new robotics class offered by SHS and taught by Debbie Birdsong. Now in its second year in existence, the SHS Robotics class has allowed students to be more hands-on with their work as they work with science, technology and engineering skills to solve problems as well as create inventions for competition. Recently, Stamford Robotics students Nikki Bhakta, a sophomore, and Bry Birdsong, a senior, competed in the Area Robotics Invention competition in Clyde, taking home second place for their project and advancing to the State competition in May. As the students worked on their robotics projects, Mrs. Birdsong, along with students Nikki and Bry, were able to talk about the class as a whole and how the program has allowed students to show their creativity with hands-on applications.

With the budget allowing for the class, the Stamford Robotics program began during the 2015-16 school year when the school was able to purchase Lego Robotics kits for the class and allow the students something new and interesting to add to their class schedule. Debbie Birdsong said that the class began by going over some programs for the class groups to build exactly according to specific guidelines. However, once students have going the hang of building, programming and sometimes controlling their robots, they are given the freedom to design their own builds to solve a particular problem. An example of which that the students would be working on this week was to build and program their robot to move small cylinders to a specific area of an “arena,” giving them some instruction along the way, but would ultimately not instruct them on what exactly to do to achieve the desired goal.

“Part of [the early classes] was just me learning not to jump in and try to take over or influence too much,” Birdsong said, “allowing them to come up with their own ideas. It’s more of a student-centered class, but every once in a while, I’ll give them a little ‘what if you did this?’ or ‘why don’t you try this?’ and then back away.” Birdsong went on to state that by allowing the students to work on their own, they are able to find their strengths and weaknesses within the group, with some being better at the building aspect of the robot while others are more suited to the programming aspect, providing a good harmony among the groups. While all groups may not be at the same level, they are able to work together to solve the problems while also seeing their hard work pay off.

When discussing what the class has been able to do, Birdsong said that while the teams have done well at competition, they were able to have some fun with their builds, including designing and building a robot that can kick a small ball and holding a small “tournament” in class as well as “lights out” robots that function with glow-in-the-dark tape and even robots that react to one another. While the classes have had fun with their builds, the skills they have learned have helped them prepare for competition in both Arena, where they must complete a scenario in a specific time, and Invention, where students create, build and “pitch” an invention in competition, with Nikki Bhakta and Bry Birdsong taking second place after only three weeks of preparation.

Originally planning to participate in the Arena competition, Bhakta and Birdsong came up with their idea of a car seat heat monitor. After researching what would be considered too hot for a baby, the students designed a monitor that would sense when a child was buckled in and would set off an alarm when the surroundings got too hot, helping prevent heat stroke in the process. They said that they are currently working on getting the system to tie into phones as well as coming up with a price range, a requirement for the presentation. Birdsong said that they were coming up with a list of teachers that had children with the goal of getting feedback to try and find the ideal price while also hoping to talk to insurance agents in town to see if it could be something that can be covered or provide a deduction on insurance premiums.

When talking about the competition, Bhakta and Birdsong said that it was a bit of a rush to get everything together after listening to the news and wanting to try out inventions. Birdsong said that “there were four teams [at competition] and it was really cool because, even though we didn’t get to see them present, there were a bunch of different things like a drone picking up a softball…it was such a broad spectrum of problems, so it was really kind of neat to look at.” They went on to say that they received a lot of feedback from the judges that helped them move forward with their project along with sharpening up their presentation, which they had little time to prepare for, but was ultimately very informative and helpful for the State level.

 

Looking at the program altogether, Debbie Birdsong said that she hopes to see the program expand in the future, incorporating other areas such as Ag to bring the different personalities together, and she would love to work with the lower grade levels and possibly offer a “camp” during the summer for the younger students to experience the program. Birdsong ended by stating that although the program is growing, Stamford is one of the few schools in the area to offer this new opportunity, which has translated to students gaining new skills as well as having a lot of fun along the way.

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