This year for the first time Lincoln Academy sent a robotics team to competition. “We have wanted to put together a robotics team for several years. This year we put together the right combination of people and equipment to field a competition team,” said Maya Crosby, Lincoln Academy’s Academic Technology Coordinator.
Robotics competitions take place worldwide. The type LA participates in are organized by Vex Robotics, an organization that sets up a task that student teams must complete using a simple robot. Every year Vex Robotics sets up a single task with several levels of sophistication and different ways to earn points. This task is the same worldwide, so whether students live in Maine or Mumbai they are challenged with the same parameters and scoring system. Tasks generally involve sorting and moving objects, and teams are scored by how efficiently and completely their robot finishes the task in a given time period. This year’s task involved sorting red and blue open cubes, then lifting them to stack onto poles.
In order to compete at robotics meets, a team must use elements of computer programming, design, engineering, and construction. “Robotics projects are designed to be cross-curricular,” says Ms. Crosby. “It takes different students, with different strengths, to put their skills together and make a robot work. We need people who have a flair for design to work with people who can build things to work with the techie kids who understand coding. Without all these people on the team, the project doesn’t work. That is really the strength of this program educationally: it not only engages students in a complex, multi-tiered task, it requires a diverse team to be successful.”
Starting the Lincoln Academy robotics team was a two-year process. “Robotics has been an aspiration at Lincoln Academy for several years, but we had to put together the resources of time and money before we could actually take a team to competition,” said Ms. Crosby. The seed money for the program came from the award Ms. Crosby received as Technology Leader of the Year in 2013-14, a statewide prize awarded by the Association of Computer and Technology Educators of Maine (ACTEM). These funds were matched by honorary trustee George Masters, allowing the fledgling robotics team to purchase robot components and practice building with them.
With a year’s experience under their belts, this fall Ms. Crosby, along with math teacher Susan Levesque, met with local science education advocates Bill and Judy Silver, and pitched the idea of sponsoring the robotics team to compete during the 2014-15 academic year. The Silvers made a generous donation, enough to cover the equipment and entry fees needed to compete in robotics events.
With these resources, the team named themselves the Electric Eagles and started preparing for competition. While teams with more experience often compete in several robotics meets during a season in order to learn from experience and get more competitive each time, the young LA team decided to start with just one, and set their sights on the Erskine Academy Meet on February 7.
Since this meet was late in the robotics season, which starts in September and runs through February, the team had the benefit of watching online videos of other teams attempting the designated task. “After several attempts we found that actually lifting the blocks was quite difficult, but we figured out that teams can earn points by just completing the sorting part of the task. We decided to stick with a ‘pushbot’ and focus on doing that one task well.”
The team that came together to compete was coached by Ms. Crosby and Mrs. Levesque, and led by students Calum Phillips ‘15, Walter Hudson ‘16, Jamayka Manter ‘18, and Madison Allen ‘18. “Other students from the Computer Science class also contributed not just by helping with building but also by recording our process in an engineering journal and building a website. The judges asked us about these tasks and they were pleased with our answers,” said Ms. Crosby.
When the LA team got to the meet at Erskine Academy on February 7, their lack of experience as a first-year team was obvious. “One of the first things we noticed was that other teams had these extended-life, powerful batteries. We didn’t have those, and it hurt us. Other teams came with lot more preparation and experience, some of the coaches are professional engineers. But our students did every last thing themselves. The built the robot, drove it, problem-solved, and worked as a team.”
The Electric Eagles did not let their lack of experience deter them. “What was so cool was that the LA kids didn’t get discouraged. Their goal was to do the best they could during their first year, and they did that, and were kind to each other at every step. We were incredibly proud of them.”
“This team really showed a lot of dedication to the project. Everyone took time after school to work on the robot, Ms. Levesque gave up her prep period for months to meet with the team, and we put in some late work nights before the meet. Jamayka stayed up till midnight making t-shirts with cool LED lights on them to wear to the meet. We didn’t win, but we learned a ton, and everyone has something to be proud of.”
Next year Lincoln Academy is offering robotics as part of the academic day during the first trimester. The class will primarily focus on the Vex Robotics task of the year, but also experiment with mini programmable robots like Bee-bots and Sumo-bots. “This is only the beginning for the Lincoln Academy Electric Eagles!” says Ms. Crosby.