Students learn STEM, communication skills on robotics team

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Photos by Anaika Miller Alia Saunders, left, and Katelynn Wilson set up a robot they built this year. Both are 9th graders and are finishing up their second year as robotics team members.

Radford High School’s and Dalton Intermediate School’s two robotics teams are reflecting on this year’s season and their plans for next year.


The teams, called the Robocats and Rockin’ R Robotics, wrapped up their second competitive season in January at the Southwest Virginia Qualifier competition. The Robocats placed ninth and the Rockin’ R Robotics placed 13th out of 22 teams. Neither advanced to the state competition.

Team members said they underestimated the intensity of robotics competitions.

“We didn’t understand until we got there that competition is real, you can’t just get it all together there,” said Luke Cundiff, an 8th grader on the Rockin’ R Robotics team.

Jennifer Eller, the robotics team coach and computer technology teacher, said she thinks the team will be better prepared for competition next year.

“They’ve seen the importance of preparing early,” Eller said.

The teams spent five months designing, building and programming robots to compete in challenges issued in September by FIRST, an organization that motivates students through its robotics competitions to pursue education and career opportunities in STEM fields.

Eller said that being on the team gives students an opportunity to learn a variety of skills.

“The students have a chance to experiences aspects of engineering, computer programming, technical writing, designing and how to become an effective problem solver,” Eller said. “They also learn the importance of team work and the role communication plays in the success of the team.”

“The students have a chance to experiences aspects of engineering, computer programming, technical writing, designing and how to become an effective problem solver,” Eller said. “They also learn the importance of team work and the role communication plays in the success of the team.”

Team members said the importance of communication was one of the main takeaways from the season.

Jerzee Johnson, an 8th grader and first-year robotics team member, said the team members didn’t start communicating well until the last couple months of the season.

Katelynn Wilson, a 9th grader and second-year robotics team member agreed.

“When there were ideas, it worked for only those people. That helped them, but it didn’t help us as a team,” Wilson said.

The idea for a robotics team came to Eller when she was asked to teach a science, technology, engineering, art and math (STEAM) class last year.

“I thought that creating a competition robotics team would cover all aspects of STEAM,” Eller said.

This year’s 12 team members, representing a range of grades and skill levels, said they learned a lot from the experience.

“At the beginning of the year, you think you could just slap pieces together but you actually have to do research,” said 12th grader Brian Hodge.

Eller said she especially likes the “aha” moments that students get while working.

“There’s always something for them to troubleshoot,” she said.

Eller said she is hoping to create a FIRST Lego League for 8th graders who are interested in robotics next year because she is going to limit the FIRST Tech Challenge league (which both of this year’s teams competed in) to high school students.

According to the international First Lego League website, students must be 9-14 years old to compete in the league. The FIRST Tech Challenge league does not have an age requirement but limits participation to 15 team members, which is why Eller created two teams this year after 18 students initially enrolled in the class.

Enrollment dropped to 12 by the spring, so Eller said she will only have one FIRST Tech Challenge team next year. She said she will also be teaching a Java course next year. Java is the programming language students use to program the robots.

From left, Luke Cundiff, Madelyn Caldwell, Michael Wojdak, Landon Roop and Jerzee Johnson demonstrate one of the robots’ ability to complete a competition challenge.

At least five members said they will stay on the team next year. In addition to forming friendships on the team and the hands-on learning experience, students cited Eller’s influence as one of the reasons they want to stay on the team.

“We are in middle school, high school, and still finding ourselves. She helps us find our way, and she knows what’s best for us,” Wilson said. “She sees more in us than we see in ourselves.”

“She pushes us to do our best,” Johnson said.

If interested in learning more about the program or donating to help the team purchase materials, contact Jennifer Eller at jeller@rcps.org.

The post Students learn STEM, communication skills on robotics team appeared first on Radford News Journal.

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