Robotics Group Instills Science Skills
Trains academy students, homeschoolers in tech disciplines (Posted July, 10, 2013)

By EDWIN MANUEL GARCIA, special to Adventist Review, reporting from Sacramento, California

ROBOTS PROGRAMMED: First LEGO League robots are programmed with software to perform a variety of tasks, such as traveling from one part of the table to another, and releasing a ball at a specified location. [PHOTS: Edwin Garcia]
en years ago veteran educator Larry Blackmer handed his tech-savvy coworker, Mel Wade, a box containing hundreds of LEGO pieces as well as motors, sensors, and a microcomputer—components of a small robot kit. “What can you do with it?” Blackmer asked.

As it turned out, a lot.

Wade, who was information technology director of the Michigan Conference at the time, eagerly assembled the contents, then shared his enthusiasm with thousands of students across the United States by founding the Adventist Robotics League.

“It is a growing movement within our Adventist schools across the North American Division,” said Wade, executive director of the league. “We have events and teams representing every region and union across the country.”

There are now 86 robotics teams in the league.

Wade is technology director at Sacramento Adventist Academy in California, which last month hosted the league’s national championship. On the afternoon of May 5, eight teams of science-minded students, ages 9 to 14, from as far away as Florida, programmed their robots to complete a series of tasks, such as moving up a ramp, or releasing a ball to knock down tiny bowling pins, within specific time frames.

But getting an autonomous robot to perform as programmed is only part of the criteria for winning (it’s also the most stressful, judging by the look on children’s faces when their vehicle suddenly goes astray). The teams, which are made up of as many as 10 students, also are judged on core values, a research project, robot design, and other benchmarks.

The winning prize, a plaque and national prestige, went to the talented group of homeschoolers from Stanwood, Washington, who call themselves the Gigabytes; they practiced with their robots for two hours every Tuesday, all year.

Indeed, robotics requires immense dedication.

WHAT HAPPENED?: Students and their adult sponsor from Forest Lake Education Center in Longwood, Florida, try to determine why their robot isn’t performing as programmed.
“You just have to be really focused, and it takes a lot of work,” said Tori Syvertson, an eighth grader at Hollister, California, Seventh-day Adventist Christian School, whose team’s biggest challenge was “trying to get the programs to do the same thing over and over,” which she said worked better at home than at the competition table.

Each tournament, whether regional or national, is based on a real-life theme: The national competition focused on “senior solutions,” a challenge that required teams to build and program their robots to complete tasks that can also help senior citizens with problems they face as they age, such as reaching items from high places in their kitchen.

For the Tech Geeks from Forest Lake Education Center, in Orlando, Florida, finding answers to senior solutions meant visiting nursing homes, attending Bible studies with elderly church members, and talking to grandparents about obstacles in their lives, said team captain Eric Nazario.

“This is amazing—to me this is what education should be,” said Tech Geeks’ teacher sponsor and school science director Rosalee Taylor. “You have a task, you work together as a team, and you solve it, because that is the future, that’s where they’re going to need to know how to go.”

WATCHING EVERY MOVE: Members of the Hollister Kumquats react nervously to the unexpected moves produced by the team’s robot at the competition table.
The robotics league is a recognized partner of U.S. FIRST LEGO League (FLL), a global organization of more than 18,000 clubs whose members range in grade from kindergarten through high school. The FLL tournaments are on Sabbath, but the Adventist Robotics League, which is sponsored by the North American Division, holds its events on Sundays.

Many league students end up pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and math.

“We’ve started to see some students come to Walla Walla from being involved in the program,” said Steve Davis, director of student information for the marketing and enrollment services at Walla Walla University.

Mel Wade, founder of the Adventist Robotics League, hopes participants eventually make a mark on the world.

“This prepares our kids really well for math and science careers, and I believe we need to prepare our kids to be missionaries in corporate America,” Wade said, “because corporate America is one of our biggest mission fields here in the United States.”

For more information on how to start a robotics program: www.adventist


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