Do you remember the Hanna-Barbera animated futuristic comedy The Jetsons? Here’s a little refresher for those of you who haven’t watched the show in years: The Jetsons, a family of four composed of “...George Jetson… his boy Elroy… daughter Judy… [and] Jane, his wife!” live in Orbit City, in the far future, where they rely upon flying vehicles and numerous other technological gadgets to complete day-to-day tasks. The family also owns a pet dog Cosmo and is assisted by Rosie, a robot housekeeper. And now, almost 60 years after robot Rosie’s television debut, Graded students are building robots of their own!
Each week, 25-30 intrepid Middle and High School students gather at the Graded Innovation Center for Robotics Club. During these meetings, they are guided by Middle School teachers Kevin Hudson and Mark Pate to learn all about the wondrous workings of robots.
Students begin their robotics journey by focusing on the foundations. They learn about the primary structures, tools, and commands underlying robot functionality. Once they have a firm grasp of these topics, club members learn how to design and build robots from scratch and assign sequences of operations that enable them to perform different sets of instructions.
Science Teacher Kevin Hudson claims that a good understanding of the basics of robotics helps students meet any challenge (and there are many!) when building their own robots. Mr. Hudson explains: "At first, robotics requires a lot of experimentation. For example, students can choose from nine different types of wheels – each with a unique function. After a few tries, students eventually understand which wheel is best suited for a specific need."
Once students have mastered these fundamentals, they take on more challenging tasks. "Students continue to work on the robot, learning by trial and error," Mr. Hudson says. "I ask them, 'If you had a motor, where would you place it? Would it be better to position it at the front, back, or center of the robot? What would you use to power the motor?'" Guided by these questions, the students experiment by installing sensors and motors controlled by computer code.
These experiences are enriching and engaging for participating students, as well as their mentors. "We often hear Robotics Club members express that they learn so much while having fun,” explains Math Teacher Mark Pate. “On a personal level, it is incredible to give students the freedom to take learning into their own hands and investigate their ideas, and they love it. Kevin and I are just guides and coaches who assist students through their journey."
And all the learning that happens in Robotics Club extends far beyond the realm of technology, as robotics can help students develop key transferable skills that will be useful in all areas of life. This is because “when building robots, students problem solve, investigate, reason, persevere, and think creatively and critically. They must communicate effectively and collaborate,” Mr. Pate says. And all of this happens in an authentic learning environment in which "students have a far deeper understanding of what they are learning while manually working through challenges instead of studying theories and memorizing content that will not be applied in everyday life."
Graded has been a champion of robotics for several years, having recognized the myriad educational benefits and opportunities this fledgling discipline offers. And, over time, the Graded community has been paying greater attention to robotics and the students involved in it: Graded robotics was born over five years ago as an after-school club; after some time, an offshoot of the club developed as a Middle School elective; eventually, robotics embedded itself in the High School as well, where a new robotics class was offered. Then, in 2019, the Graded Innovation Center was inaugurated, and the school’s zeal for robotics reached new heights.
Nothing exemplifies Graded's growing enthusiasm for robotics more aptly than the robot boxing ring housed in the Innovation Center. The boxing ring has hosted epic showdowns between Graded Middle and High School robotics students, and so far, the Middle School students remain undefeated.
Thirsty for more competition, the Graded robotics teams are also exploring adventures beyond the brick walls of the Morumbi campus. In 2019, students formed the competitive team RoboEagles, and the following February, the RoboEagles flew to San Francisco to compete in the world’s largest robotics tournament, the VEX Robotics Competition. Unfortunately, the VEX competition was canceled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but this year should allow for many new competitive opportunities.
It’s 2021, and all this talk of robots makes it sound like the future is already here. Although this future has not yet incorporated flying cars or cities in space, as the creators of The Jetsons envisioned it would, it is eerily similar to George Jetson’s Orbit City in other ways. Like the Jetsons, we live in a society in which technology has almost limitless capacities. This high-tech reality comes with many advantages and drawbacks, and Graded’s investment in STEM education and robotics means that students will be prepared to actively participate in the world of the 2020s and beyond. Maybe then, in a few years, a Graded Robotics Club alum will finally design the first commercially available flying car.