Friars' Work

Robots test teens' skill, perseverance


Define "robot".

Br. Chris Cahill looks up from the floor of the cafeteria, where he’s connecting rubber mats for a class project.

"Robots do things automatically," he says, returning to his task.

There you have it. Forget those sci-fi films in which humanoid machines take over the world. This is high school, where the goals for a robot are less lofty:

Make it roll. Make it turn. Make it grab.

In January, friar Chris became the first teacher of Roger Bacon’s first course in Robotics. The syllabus can be summed up in one sentence: Teams of students build a mobile apparatus from a kit that looks like an Erector set.

But their grade for the class is based upon more than what they build. Chris hopes they will work as a team, follow instructions, analyze problems and brainstorm solutions. Here, the process is as important as the product.

Josiah McGee is ready to put his robot to the test.

Crunch time

"They wanted more technology done," he says of the school’s decision to add Robotics to the curriculum. "I am an engineer, although my big thing is computing," which makes him the logical teacher. Last fall, "I told them I needed $6,000 for parts for the class, and they said, ‘Fine.’ I told them I could take 18 students." Seventeen signed up.

Some, like Josiah McGee, are former members of the Spartronics, a robotics team once fielded by Roger Bacon in regional competitions. "My dad is an electrical engineer," Josiah says of his interest in math, science and design. "I used to watch YouTube videos all the time" to see how things were made.

Today, his team is one of four that’s ready to test their project, a lanky contraption with no personality but loads of battery-powered pep. "You’ve got the best design for picking things up," Chris assures him as the robot whirs, clicks and buzzes its way across the rubber mat.

The deceptively simple road test: Josiah will maneuver his robot via remote control to left plastic rings and either deposit them on tiered pegs or roll up a ramp and drop them in a bucket. Points are given for degree of difficulty, the top peg garnering the most.

Andrew Rieman and Chas Scholz

Teaching basics

That’s when you see how tricky this is. An effective robot is perfectly balanced and easy to steer, with a well-placed claw for targeted grabbing. Josiah has this down pat. For some other teams, it’s back to the drawing board.

The robots come from a kit, but there’s flexibility in assembly. The makeshift lab where this happens is around the corner from the cafeteria in a too-small space that once housed Home Economics.

Somehow they’ve crammed enough tables in here to accommodate six teams of students at various stages of progress. "I’ve got people in here for all different reasons," Chris says.

"I’m gonna become an electrician," says Daniel Michaels.

"I thought it would be cool," says Jalen Childress.

The alternative was a class with all freshman, says Conor Healy.

Free from constraints of a classroom setting, team members banter while they tinker. Chris moves from one group to the next, available for questions. "I enjoy this as long as I feel like I’m teaching them something," he says. "I want them to know what the parts are and how they work, to understand the components that go into a robot." For example, "I want them to learn the difference between a motor and a servo and how they’re used." (Explaining that would take more room than we have.)

Unlike a Roomba that sweeps your floor on demand, these robots have no mind of their own. That would require advanced programming, which Chris is eager to tackle down the road. He also plans to revive the Spartronics so teens can enter "challenges", matching wits and robot-building skills with teams across the country. At stake is millions of dollars in scholarships offered by schools and corporations.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Oscar Stehlin and Daniel Michaels making adjustments to their robot.

Building Jenny

For now, it’s back to the basics. At this point, the week before spring break, "Some students are done testing their robots," according to Chris. "Some are still trying to figure it out." Ethan Nye, Conor and Sean Larson hunker over their table beneath a handwritten sign that reads, "Jenny", the name they’ve given their creation.

"We are about to get ours to work" by adjusting the lever arm, says Ethan, opening the workbook they’re using as a guide. Unfortunately, "Once you solve one problem, four more come up." Issues might be resolved with something as simple as a twist tie. Other times, rebuilding is required. Asked what they’ve learned so far, one student says,"We learned patience, mostly."

Chris tries hard to instill confidence. "They’re not sure they can do it. You have to keep telling them, ‘You can do it.’"

After all, they’re not just building robots. They’re building skills for life.

Sean Larson, Ethan Nye and Conor Healy: Theirs is the only team that named their robot.
The robot's job is to roll, turn and grab.