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Education / Robotics / STEM

RoboDoves robotics: ‘understand what it takes to solve problems’ [VIDEO]

Robotics, for some students, is captivating, compelling and the way in which they connect what they learn in the classroom to a practical effort they’re personally invested in. The RoboDoves at Western High School is as strong an example as any.

Keimmie Booth takes a Dremel tool to Harvey Harvester.
This is the second and final part of a Technically Baltimore series on the RoboDoves. Click here to read part one, about how the RoboDoves made it to the VEX Robotics World Championship.
The RoboDoves would have to start over. Barely a month before they were scheduled to depart in mid-April for the VEX Robotics World Championship, Keimmie Booth and Indya Dodson, both seniors on Western High School’s all-female robotics team, knew their robot wasn’t advanced enough to compete against robots from China, Singapore, the United Kingdom and better bots from elsewhere in the world.

So they scrapped the robot they used to qualify for the world championship during December’s VEXmas Classic in Baltimore, and built Harvey Harvester in two weeks.
Harvey was a quicker, badder bot that could scoop up as many as 10 sacks at once. If anything would help the RoboDoves during the two-minute “Sack Attack” matches they would play at the VEX world championship in California, it was Harvey’s ability to score them multiple points by grabbing multiple bean bags. The robot was even outfitted with a pneumatic pump, used to push the bags onto troughs suspended 18 to 30 inches off the ground in the center of the enclosed square field used for Sack Attack. And it was programmed to run on its own for 15 seconds, the autonomous portion that kicks off every match when robots pick up sacks, dump them into troughs and score points without the help of student-drivers.
Watch the RoboDoves test Harvey Harvester’s autonomous mode:

Ron Karpinski, a retired engineer and the technical mentor for the RoboDoves since the team formed in 2008, called Harvey “as fast a collection machine that I can remember seeing.”
But Harvey wouldn’t be enough: mechanical and electrical problems (similar to the ones in the video above) led to quick losses the first day of competition on April 18. While RoboDoves’ captain Booth said the shortcomings were eventually fixed, it was too late — the team didn’t make it out of the opening divisional rounds, and weren’t among the top 85 teams listed on the VEX World Championship website.

Ron Karpinski and Indya Dodson working on Harvey Harvester.

Ron Karpinski and Indya Dodson working on Harvey Harvester.


For a robotics team that has qualified for the VEX championship five times in as many years — a team Booth has called the “Lakers of robotics,” at least in the Baltimore region (and when the Lakers still won playoff games) — the woeful results seem surprising.
But superficially condensing the value of competitive robotics into the number of championship matches won during a four-day event misses the broader point. It ignores the effect being a RoboDove has had on Booth, who credits her team membership with changing the way “I feel about school.” It disregards Dodson’s desire to study mechanical engineering in college, and then travel to Africa with the Engineers Without Borders program, two things assembling rack and pinion gears after school in a robotics laboratory have helped her recognize.
Watch Keimmie Booth’s talk about robotics at TEDxBaltimore 2013:

Robotics, for some students, is captivating, compelling and the way in which they connect what they learn in the classroom to a practical effort they’re personally invested in. It’s learning physics not for its own sake, but for knowing how to design and build a robot that can compete — and, at least sometimes, win.
Robots Are the Hook
In Baltimore, an effort shepherded by Baltimore City Public Schools is now underway to “sell math and science to kids,” as Josh Gabrielse puts it.
Gabrielse runs the robotics program for the city’s school system, and is one of many responsible for the three robotics competitions hosted by city schools over the past year, including the VEXmas Classic at Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women in December. On May 4, the city is sponsoring the Hopkins Robotics Cup, its first local VEX robotics championship for middle and high school robotics teams from Baltimore schools.
The layout of the field for Sack Attack matches. (Image courtesy of VEX Robotics.)

The layout of the field for Sack Attack matches. (Image courtesy of VEX Robotics.)


Of course, it’s not as if middle and high school students who compete on local robotics teams are being swindled into loving parabolic equations. But a happy secondary effect of participating on teams that duke it out on 12-foot-by-12-foot Sack Attack fields is more students being more interested in studying STEM subjects.
“When I was a junior I took physics, and I could understand things more easily because I had that physics background,” Dodson told Technically Baltimore in March.
Karpinski agrees. “[Booth and Dodson] both tell me they understand why they have to learn math and geometry,” he said. “They wish they would have understood this three years ago.”
A paper published in 2012 co-authored by two Georgia Institute of Technology professors — “The Impact of Participation in VEX Robotics Competition on Middle and High School Students’ Interest in Pursuing STEM Studies and STEM-related Careers” — reports that upwards of 90 percent of students on robotics teams are “more interested in having a job in a STEM or computer field.” Close to 80 percent of students are “more interested in taking engineering classes at college.”
Only 70 students were interviewed for the paper, making for an admittedly small survey size. The results, nonetheless, were on par with what Gabrielse and others hope to accomplish with robotics in Baltimore city: break through the digital divide, tie a competition into schools’ and teachers’ curricular goals and get local companies scouting at the city’s high schools for promising interns and future employees.
Baltimore City Robotics Still ‘Young’
Despite the strides made in the 2012-2013 academic year — just one robotics competition was held in the city the previous year — robotics in the city is “young,” said Heather Romney, a faculty member at Western High School who teaches a robotics class to juniors and seniors and serves as the “person in charge” of the RoboDoves.
Western High School's RoboDoves are the "Lakers of robotics."

Western High School’s RoboDoves are the “Lakers of robotics.”


Not to mention expensive. Registration at the VEX World Championship cost $750 this year. Registration at December’s VEXmas Classic cost $75.
While the fields, the laptops and the sound systems employed at local robotics competitions are owned by the city school system, the RoboDoves, for instance, have to fund their robotics program through grants — including a standing grant through the U.S. Army Research Laboratory — and fundraisers. Captain Keimmie Booth has also presented at the Maryland Space Business Roundtable for two years, the money from which pays some of the RoboDoves’ travel and competition costs for the VEX championship.
“I think we could eventually have a lot more partnerships with companies in the city,” Romney said. “But at the moment, we have to prove ourselves.”
In time, if local infrastructure continues to grow in support of robotics competitions, those partnerships might develop. Some already exist: Northrop Grumman donated $67,000 to build two STEM labs at Baltimore Leadership School.
As for students proving themselves and the concomitant value of competitive robotics? That’s already happening.
“I think both Indya and Keimmie get it. I can see it in their eyes,” RoboDoves technical mentor Karpinski said. “They understand. Or, as I tell them, they’re beginning to understand what it takes to solve problems. If that’s what they take away from this program, I think that’s quite enough.”

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