teaching with passion
Kyle Walker, the Digital Teacher Librarian at Kullerstrand Elementary, shares the passion of robotics and coding with his students. This year, with the help of a generous donor, Kyle started the Robotics and Coding club at his school. Every Monday afternoon, students collaborate and work together to engineer a robot that can be coded to perform unique tasks.
Kyle has reached out to various community members to help build career connections between computer science and robotics. The School of Mines Robotics Club made a visit earlier this year and shared their own robotics project and mentored the students. Jason Roadman, an engineer at NREL visited the club and shared some of his own engineering expertise with wind turbines, allowing students to build real world connections.
Want to see the Robotic club in action? The club will be competing in a VEX Robotics tournament at Red Hawk Elementary School in Erie on February 11th. For this competition, student groups will design, build, and control a robot for the playing field. The robot will complete various challenges like moving objects over a fence, placing objects in containers, and balancing the robot on a seesaw-like bridge. Students will learn to use professional job skills completing these tasks such as teamwork, communication, and time management.
interview with kyle walker
How did you decide which platform to use?
“I knew the two main platforms were VEX and LEGO Mindstorms, so when I attended ISTE last summer, I spent some time observing both exhibition booths. I also researched online. The other big factor for me was how convenient it would be for my students to attend local competitions. I found out that there is a strong VEX presence up in the St. Vrain Schools system, and they host competitions within easy driving distance. I contacted them and spent an afternoon with one of their robotics clubs to get ideas on how to start my own. The VEX platform for elementary is called VEX IQ. These are primarily plastic parts and are simpler and less expensive. Once you get into middle school, you move up to the option of using VEX EDR. These are primarily metal robots, which are more elaborate and more expensive”.
How are coding skills used in the design of the robots?
“It’s possible to do entry-level robotics, and even participate in competitions without doing any coding at all. There are three ways to compete, and only one of them requires the programming of an autonomous robot. VEX robots can be programmed using any of the four different software/languages. I went with RobotC because it’s an industry standard, and it’s an excellent transition between graphical coding and text-based coding. In other words, if your kids are already familiar with graphical coding (i.e. Code.org, Scratch, Hopscotch, etc.), RobotC’s graphical version moves just a little bit further toward text-based coding without the students having to actually type anything other than the occasional value. In fact, the text of the code is fully visible right there on the graphical components that they connect together to write their programs. Where does coding come into play with robotics? When you want to make your robot do anything other than the standard drive-it-around-and-move-the-arm business, you’re going to have to program it to do so. If you want it to go faster or slower than the default, you’ll have to program it. If you want it to do anything based on the input of its sensors (light sensors, distance sensors, color sensors, bumper sensors, touch sensors, gyroscope), you’ll have to use code to program it with what the values of those sensors should be and what you want the robot to do in response. For example, you could write code that tells the robot to turn 180 degrees and go in the other direction if it comes within 100 millimeters of an obstacle. I had some girls whose robot arm wasn’t moving fast enough to push down a lever, so they had to learn the code to make the motor that turns that arm faster, in order to give it sufficient velocity. With the coding aspect of robotics, you can go as deep as you are willing to go, but it’s always connected to your design. It’s always fulfilling some aspect of what you need the robot to do”.
What advice would you give to someone starting a club?
“Advice for starting a club: Reach out and find others who are doing so! It’s not necessary to go in completely blind. And look ahead and determine what your long-range goals are. Because you are going to be investing a lot of money in the materials, you don’t want to find yourself down the road with an excited group of students who can’t go to any competitions because the competitions for your chosen platform are all in another state. It would be better for Jeffco to decide on its platform together (VEX! VEX! VEX!) so we can begin to host our own competitions and not have to worry about travel much at all. As far as money is concerned, this will depend a lot on your population. Many parents would be excited about this and your PTA might be a great source. But local tech businesses might be willing to sponsor a school team too, so look outside your building. Put some of the responsibility on the students and have them put together a business plan and do their own fundraiser. Space and organization: My library is a wreck right now. Robotics activities need a work space, and you need a place to store the parts. I bought little plastic bins and organized them that way, but now I need a better place to put all these bins. Teach responsibility and organization: The kids need to take responsibility for a lot of things in a robotics club, so make this one of your main themes. We have adopted “professionalism” as our theme, and I make the kids accountable to being professional in the club and in the classroom. We operate on a “3 strikes you’re out” policy – they have to turn in all their classwork and behave for their teachers. I remind the teachers to use this as leverage in the classroom. So far, it’s paid off”.
Want to start your own Robotics Club and help prepare your students for future careers? Check out Kyle’s website and these additional resources to get started.