By Justin Prince
Note: This story was originally published in the Seaforth Huron Expositor.
It is 9:10 a.m. as first period is well underway at Central Huron Secondary School in Clinton. Most of the institution’s 530 students are busy in class taking notes or writing tests, except for the occasional group of friends hanging out in the hallways.
Meanwhile, inside the school’s small gym is Monica Ryan’s 4U Physics class. The students are all staring towards the centre of the room at a pile of tennis balls sitting inside a hula hoop. One person in each group of three students set up around the gym is holding a remote controller, listening intently to Ryan as she counts down towards the start of her class’s robotics challenge.
Within seconds, as Ryan says the word zero, she moves the hula hoop out of the way, and the five robots set up on the edge of the gym floor come to life, all sprinting forward to get as many tennis balls as possible in a span of five minutes. As the robots try to grab as many of the yellow and white balls as they can, students from each team are trying to guide and encourage their drivers as they try to put them into their respective baskets.
“I think the challenge was amazing,” said Ryan, a physics and physical education teacher at the school, after the competition May 20. She noted the challenge was inspired by a student event from earlier in the school year, dubbed ‘Hungry Hippos’, where people grabbed the balls. “It was interesting to see students struggle with their designs and their driving skills, but they remained supportive of each other.”
Those modifications, as well as a driver change, would happen after the end of what would be the first of three rounds. The Grade 12 students had three minutes to try and modify – or in some cases fix – their robots, which they had been working on for months with the initial goal of outscoring their colleagues.
“It was fun and pretty competitive,” said 17-year-old Zak Goos, a student from the winning team. “All our work paid off.”
For Ryan, her interest in robotics was first sparked while attending a technology conference in the U.S. last year, through the Avon Maitland District School Board. She explained some of her colleagues at CHSS have an interest in new types of technology, all trying to figure out ways to add them to their lesson plans.
It was at that time she decided she wanted to pursue adding robotics into her physics program, and asked the school for the equipment needed last September.
Shortly after her request, a community donor gave the school the $8,000 it needed to buy the robotic kits.
“It was quite intimidating at first for me to figure out how to fit (the robots) into the program,” said Ryan, who noted the equipment did not arrive until a few days before the current semester started. “I let the enthusiasm of the kids help guide the process.”
Ryan explained her students originally built standard robots during class. The kits had included instructions for their basic components including a claw to pick up the balls, according to Goos. The class then decided they wanted to have a bit more of a challenge, which led to the competition itself.
Ryan found that once they started designing their own robots, that’s when the class developed and showed their problem solving and creativity skills.
For Goos, Cassie Dutot and Grady Semple’s robot, their modifications included a back bar to grab the tennis balls.
“The whole building experience was probably the best part,” said Dutot as her teammates agreed. “We had to do a lot of the modifications changing what our original design was and altering it until we got to (the final design).”
Ryan expressed the importance of encouraging students to be creative in today’s world.
“(As we) move kids into the 21st century, we want them to think beyond just knowledge,” Ryan said. “We want them to use their knowledge in an effective way.”
Ryan plans to look into creating a year-round robotics club at CHSS this September.