This story first appeared in the Summer 2010 edition of the Harker Quarterly
Since starting at the upper school in 2001, robotics at Harker has grown into an opportunity for both middle and upper school students to learn real-life engineering skills in addition to providing a fun, competitive environment. This year, the programs at both levels have achieved success on all fronts.
“Organizationally, the team functioned better than I have ever seen,” said Eric Nelson, upper school computer science department chair and mentor to the US robotics team. “They had a good business structure, created an initial business plan, made promotional elements, maintained the website and managed the engineering elements of the program.”
Under Nelson’s direction, the program has been designed to emulate the structure of a Silicon Valley start-up firm. Students manage the budget of the program, select officers to run the would-be company, oversee and execute the engineering and programming of the robots, train the members of the team, purchase parts, develop partnerships and promote the team. “The only thing the team does not deal with is a payroll,” Nelson said.
Andrea Lincoln, Gr. 12, served as the executive president of the upper school robotics team during the 2009-10 school year, and said she enjoyed the cohesiveness and intense, hands-on approach offered by Nelson’s unique take on the program. “Over only six weeks the core members will work over 400 hours, an average of 60 hours a week,” she said. “That 60 hours does not include school or homework, so the build period is really intense and bonds us together as a team.”
Both of Harker’s robotics teams participate in competitions by FIRST, a nonprofit organization that holds robotics competitions for various grade levels nationwide.
The US team had a strong showing at the Sacramento regional, finishing in the top 24 out of 50 teams, impressive for a team that is almost entirely run and maintained by students. “Most winning teams outsource a large part of their efforts to professionals or semiprofessionals,” Nelson said. “We outsource very little. I require that the students learn to manage the team, the structure, the design, the construction and the testing, to name a few.”
Nelson added that the team “is moving in the direction of a sustainable, successful organization. It’s just going to take a while to get there as they learn how to, and not to, do it along the way.” At the middle school level, the robotics program began as a club during the 2005-06 school year before becoming an elective in 2009-10. The class is used as a way to introduce students to a method of programming focused less on details and more on the end result.
“The secret is to divide things into smaller, more manageable problems and conquer strategically,” said Michael Schmidt, the team’s instructor. The class originated as a student club, but as interest and the need for more meetings grew, the club this year became an elective class that met every day for one semester, in addition to eight Saturdays.
The MS robotics team competes in the FIRST Lego League (FLL), which is offered to students in grades four through eight and uses robots from the LEGO Mindstorms product line. The competition guidelines dictate what is taught in class. “Each year, FLL creates a new theme and a set of tasks to perform,” said Schmidt. “These tasks must be performed by the robot autonomously with no help from the students other than pressing the run button.” The students create, load and run the programs that contain the orders the robot must follow to win the competition.
Schmidt said this year was considered “very successful,” with three Harker teams advancing to the state level of FLL competition. “This class provides a technological experience that is very educational for the kids, but is also on the costly side,” Schmidt said. “More teams are sponsored by parents than schools. So this really puts Harker’s middle school at the forefront of computer science instruction, since we are capable of absorbing those costs, and providing a class that meets regularly to focus on specific goals.”