by Geoff Fox
For the last three months, there has been a group of middle school students at Hancock Middle School working on creating and programming a working robot for competitions and getting a head start on their futures.
The club is student-driven and meets for an hour and a half each week. The group has met a dozen times so far.
The school’s Business Education Teacher Rhonda Munson is the club’s advisor.
The school IT person downloads software the students need for their projects and then they are able to “do it all.”
Munson said there had been a lot of interest in coding over the past few years and when new principal Chris Cline came on, he wanted such a club to start at the school.
Hancock is the last school in the county to form a robotics club, and is trying to attract students.
“When we advertised it then to the high school, we really didn’t have that many students sign up,” Munson said. “When we opened it up to middle school, we actually had more than this.”
Munson said the turnout from the middle school students was great. Right now, the club has eight members, all of whom are middle school students.
In conjunction with Volvo Powertrain, Washington County Public Schools provided the starter kit for the club. Munson said the kit itself costs $1,000.
The clubs are also backed by VEX Robotics, which provides the software for the students to use.
Munson said the software could be used in block mode, which helps students just starting out. When they get to high school and more proficient in coding, the software can be switched to line coding.
The Hancock Robotics Club received their kit in late October, Munson said, and the kids followed the instructions to build what they call “The Claw Bot.”
Munson said there are three areas the students focus – building, which is being able to manipulate how the Claw Bot is structured; coding, which allows them to visualize how the code through the controller is able to move and what movements are needed; and engineering, design, methodology, and creating a notebook for change.
This continues over the years, so the students don’t have to start fresh each year.
Clubs can buy added parts for the robot, with support from sponsors and the software company.
This past December, Hancock Robotics headed to South High in Hagerstown for their first competition to see what it’s like.
Clubs are judged on their notebook, whether the robot can move on its own, and how they gear through the tower scenario.
There are four teams – two red and two blue – that compete, each color together.
The red teams are scored compared to the blue teams. This allows the teams to learn to work with each other, Munson said.
With Hancock’s team being small and new, they didn’t have a backup battery or other parts.
Munson said a team from the Baltimore area, made up of high school students, loaned a battery and other pieces to the Hancock team.
“The knowledge and the working together is phenomenal,” she said. “It is everything you would want to see the kids doing. And they’re learning from each other.”
At one point, the robot from Hancock did not meet the specifications to fit within a box. Within 45 minutes, the kids had the robot within specs.
Out of 25 teams, Hancock placed ninth. Munson noted all the parents from Hancock were in attendance at the competition.
The next competition will be January 18 at South Hagerstown.
As the kids continue their high school careers, they’ll still be able to participate in the same club. Munson said the group is accepting anyone who would want to join.
“The oldest student in the group determines the competition level,” Munson said. “As soon as one of them is in high school, we become a high school group.”
Right now in Washington County, a lot of the competitions are mixed between middle and high school students.
“We want them thinking, so this puts them right in that path of having to think,” she said.
Competitive robotics challenges students to learn teamwork and problem solving, and follow scientific discovery.
At the more sophisticated, levels, students need to determine drag and angles to get their robots to perform.
The eight students who are part of the robotics club say they’ve found different aspects of fun in the club projects.
For Brody Stratton, the club “sounded interesting” and it was similar to one last year at his previous school. He said there wasn’t much participation in that one.
He said building and helping to drive the robot have been the fun things he’s done in the club.
Landon Howe joined the robotics club because he likes to work on coding. He’s become the programmer for the club, doing the coding for the robot so they could see how it worked and test it out.
Howe said he to set up the drive train, which is how the robot moves, configured the controller, and also coded other things like the bumpers.
Emilee Faith said she joined because she likes building robots and “tech stuff.”
While she didn’t have a hand in building “Claw Bot,” as the others were already on it, Faith created the club’s logo, which is another thing she likes to do.
The club has taught Faith how to drive the robot and also learn how to control it on the computer.
Clayton Knepper joined as a way to find a new hobby.
Knepper said driving the robot around, going to the competition with his friends, and getting to work on the programming are his favorite parts of the club so far.
Knepper said he got to meet new people from other schools at the competition who became his friends.
“It was a really fun time, just getting to do new things,” Knepper said.
With robots starting to take jobs away from humans, Knepper said programming could be a good job to pursue.
Nick Creek joined because he likes building things with his hands and he’s good at it.
He said going to the first competition and meeting kids who have the same interests as him were especially fun.
At the competition, Creek said they went to the semi-finals, which was pretty far for their first time.
Building the robot has been his favorite part of the club.
Looking forward, Creek said the club helps him being a better builder and having ideas besides his own.
Dakota Truax joined because he is interested in technology and “technology is something that I want to work with whenever I’m older.”
Truax has helped build the robot, making sure parts work, and stand beside the driver during the competition.
He said a lot of time and teamwork goes into building the robot.
Truax said there is a lot of nervousness and struggle at the competition.
“It’s not just the driver that gets nervous, it’s everybody on the team,” he said.
Truax said he’s learned that no matter what happens when doing something, you need to work together.
Austin Nolan joined so he could learn how to build things.
Nolan said the most things he’s done in the club is eat pizza and go on the field trip.
While he hasn’t been in the club very long, Nolan said building things is what he’s learned so far. He’s been watching and taking everything in.
Seth Knight joined the club because it sounded interesting and factors into the career path he wants to study – prosthetic engineering.
“It seems like a good way to go to further my intelligence of robotics,” he said.
For him, the programming and building the robots have been the highlights so far.
He said when it comes to programming, you have to be sure everything is done correctly, meaning figuring out how to connect blocks and what blocks do what.
Knight is focusing on programing for what he hopes the club teaches him for the future.