Interview with Robotics Club sponsor Carla Johnston about the new organization
Was Robotics a program you brought with you from Manhattan?
Johnston: “We had a Robotics Team at Manhattan High last year. We went to different competitions there. We actually went to the first competition, which is in Kansas City, at Manhattan. Rock Creek went to the BEST competition at Wichita State this year.”
So, Rock Creek had this prior to this year?
Johnston: “No, this is the first year.”
Okay, so what are the different roles of the kids who participate in Robotics, and what are they working towards?
Johnston: “The competition that we go to is called BEST, and it stands for Boosting Engineering, Science, and Technology. And, so, it’s to allow the students to explore all those different areas. It’s not just building a robot, although that’s a big piece of it. The students could be part of the design team, the build team, they could be drivers, they could be programmers, they could help build the playing field. There was also a marketing and business team that had to create a presentation that they presented to a group of professional engineers, actually marketing our product, or our robot. They also had to create an exhibit that was on display at the Koch Arena on the day of the competition. And, then, we also had to compete as a team in the spirit and sportsmanship award area. So, really, something for every student. Anybody that wanted to be involved in it, could. There’s something for everybody.”
So, I’ve heard about kids going to different conferences with it. What do they do at these, and when have you gone?
Johnston: “There was three different times we went to Wichita State this year. And, it’s actually a six-week season with BEST. So, on Sept. 10, we went to Wichita State for the kickoff event, where they revealed the challenge for the year. And, so, every year is different. This year, the theme was ‘Bet the Farm,’ and it revealed all the different tasks that the robot had to do, including picking corn, planting corn, irrigating crops, and picking lettuce and tomatoes. So, yeah, it was pretty interesting. They showed a video, kind of a kickoff video of all of the different tasks, and so that was the first day of the season then. We went back on Oct. 15, and that was our practice day, so we took the robot and the six drivers, and they all got a chance to practice on the playing field that day. We went back on Friday, Oct. 21, and that was the day that the Marketing Team had to present their presentation. We spent the night, and on Oct. 22, was the actual competition day. So, the exhibit was on display at Koch Arena, and then the students actually competed with the robot.”
How do you feel the program has been doing in its first year at Rock Creek?
Johnston: “I thought it was phenomenal because the students were so committed because it was such a huge time commitment in a short amount of time. I mean, basically, they had six weeks to design and build from scratch, and it was something that other than one student had never done before. So, I feel like, for our rookie season, it just, it just went great. I was very, very proud of the students.”
I know there was a lot of kids, like 40 kids, at the very first meeting. Did that kind of enthusiasm stay throughout the entire process?
Johnston: “There were 33. We ended up with 20 students that had committed to the program. After some students heard they would need to do after-school work and weekend work, there were some that had to drop out because they had other commitments, and they knew they wouldn’t be able to attend any of those meeting times. Twenty was a real solid number to commit to that six weeks. I think we only ended up with a couple of seniors, so we have a good core group for next year’s season, too.”
So, what does the robot do? It has to do with agriculture?
Johnston: “It does have to do with agriculture. Like I said, there were different tasks that earned different points. So, our robot was able to pick corn and actually carry the corn to a bin and put the ears of corn in the bin, and it was also able to turn the irrigation handle. And, so, that was actually the highest point total of anything on the playing field, so it was great that that students were able to do that.”
So, how do you feel the project progressed? Did it progress well, or did you hit any speed bumps?
Johnston: “We had a lot of challenges along the way. When we went to the practice day, that was five weeks into the season, our team didn’t earn any points that day. There were instances where the robot wouldn’t run at all. There were instances when the programming wasn’t quite right. The advantage of BEST is that so many other schools are willing to do everything they can to help you. And, so, we had other students from other schools come over and look at our programs and help us with the code. We had coaches from other schools come and look at the robot and offer advice. We had mentors; we had two mentors from Garmin in Manhattan that were software engineers, and they committed time. They would come out during the season and help us. And, they were really the ones that helped us get over the major road blocks. So, yeah, there was a lot of challenges, but for a first-year team, I thought they really came together and pretty much overcame every challenge that they faced.”
So, how did they do at the final judging?
Johnston: “They placed 25th out of 31 teams. You know, it’s just based on the experience of the drivers and the design of the robot.”
What skills does Robotics Club help students develop?
Johnston: “Problem solving, because there is nobody telling them, ‘This is what you need to do. Step one. Step two.’ At the robotics kickoff, they showed a video that said this is what the robot needed to do. And, so, it was from ground zero. The students had to come up with the design, they had to take a set amount of materials they were given in their kit – because every team starts with the same kit and has to figure out how they could take these different pieces of plywood and different pieces of metal and pipe and put it all together into something that would actually accomplish a task. So, the biggest thing is problem-solving skills.”
So, what opportunities does it provide to students now and in the future?
Johnston: “I think, first of all, it introduces them to careers in programming. They were exposed to working in professional engineer’s software, like our mentors’ software. The judges for our Marketing and Business presentation were mechanical engineers. We actually took a tour of Wichita State and learned about their engineering program and their aerospace engineering program. So, a lot of exposure to careers as engineers. It also got some girls involved, where science is typically underrepresented by females, so I think it was a great opportunity for the girls to get involved, and I hope that we have more females in the future, too. Further into it, we are planning to visit K-State in the spring and actually tour their engineering program, and actually look at their robotics team too. A lot of connections for the students that they maybe would not have had the opportunity for.”
Interview by staff member Katie Dulohery