If not for a fortunate accident, the Glasscock Elementary Jr. Beta robotics team, which recently claimed second place at the state convention’s robotics competition, may not have fared so well.
As the students explain it, their robot’s claw broke the day before the competition. While most of the team’s members were already en route to the convention, teammate MyKiah Johnson (who was traveling separately later) was able to fix the claw and made an important discovery.
“I fixed the claw and ran some tests and found out that we were two inches off on everything because we were doing it in the hallway,” Johnson said. Thanks to some last minute adjustments, the issues were resolved and the team -- made up of fourth-graders Johnson, Bella Brady, Alex Burger, and Jayden Tolliver along with fifth-grader Elizabeth Brady -- would go on to take the runner-up spot in the team members’ first-ever competition.
Of course, that’s not to say they were all necessarily surprised by their success.
“I was actually very confident, I thought we were going to get in the top three,” Burger said. “But, when I heard ‘second’ I was like, ‘We got second in the whole state!’”
That meant that Elizabeth Brady was tasked with accepting the team’s plaque.
“I had to go up and get it [plaque] and I was in complete shock,” she said. “I was nervous because I’ve never been up on stage like that before.”
The team also qualified to compete at the Jr. Beta National Convention which takes place in June in Ft. Worth, Texas. However, the team’s sponsor, GES science teacher Angela Burke says that trip might not be feasible for the team.
Regardless, it’s obvious Burke is incredibly proud of the students’ accomplishment.
“This is an amazing group of students,” Burke said. “The students worked diligently on the robot after school, during times throughout the day when their goals had been met, and even during Christmas Break. The students did an excellent job and I am ecstatic they earned an award for their efforts.”
Robotics a growing aspect of MCPS
The GES Jr. Beta robotics team’s success speaks to the growth of robotics throughout Marion County Public Schools. GES also has a Vex robotics team and similar teams and groups have sprouted up across the school district.
For example, there are now six competitive robotics teams at the high school level.
“Providing these types of opportunities for our students is incredibly important,” MCPS Superintendent Taylora Schlosser said. “We know that robotics is an ever-expanding aspect of a global economy and we want to make sure our students have the experiences needed to be ready for the future of work. Preparing students for that future doesn’t start with post-secondary education. It doesn’t start in high school. It starts in our elementary schools.
“And who knows, maybe having these robotics teams and clubs inspires a student to become an engineer or a programmer. Or maybe it’s just a really fun part of their public school experience. Either way, I’m really pleased with what we’re seeing at our schools with robotics.”
While their future jobs may be a long time away, for at least one of the team members, the robotics experience might have sparked a career destination.
“Before I had a robot I never knew if I wanted to do this or that, but now I think I want to do something with robots,” Elizabeth Brady said.
For Johnson, being on the robotics team is also a part of a career plan he has in mind.
“I had a lot of fun on this because I want to be an engineer when I grow up so this is like one step closer to doing this,” he said.
Beyond just robotics
Perhaps more impressive than the second-place finish are the skills the students used to get there.
“Well, it can be hard sometimes, but you can get through it because sometimes you have to build the robot or add new parts and there can be some trial-and-error, but you can always fix it,” Burger said.
That type of critical thinking through trial-and-error and problem-solving fit neatly within the MCPS Portrait of a Graduate, which defines the types of soft skills, thinking skills, and dispositions the school district hopes to see from all students.
So do the communication and collaboration skills the students needed as they made adjustments to their robot.
“Another good part of it was that we got work with a whole different group than we would usually work with,” Johnson said. “You have to agree on everything or else something goes wrong -- we said we had to divide and conquer.”
All the students agreed there was lots of critical thinking involved as some worked on piecing the robot together, while others focused more on programming it, or conducting research. And ultimately, the team’s success also hinged on their ability to work together.
“I had a lot of fun because it’s a lot of fun to work with the robot and it’s really fun to work with my friends,” Bella Brady said.
Putting on a good show
For the Jr. Beta competition, the team had to program the robot to autonomously perform tasks that fit the competition’s theme.
“I think we did so well because the topic was ‘Beta Examining our World,’ so we got a bunch of different places and we let the robot do something at each station, so I think that helped us get some bonus points,” Bella Brady said.
As the students explained, once set in motion, the robot would travel to different spots on the floor that featured different props the students had created to represent traveling to different locales.
According to Elizabeth Brady, the team was attempting to “put on a good show” for the judges.
The robot traveled to Mexico, underground (as in Mammoth Cave), the western U.S., Hawaii, and Africa. Those destinations held personal significance for each of the team members, and also spawned the acronym MUWHA, which became the robot’s name.
Perhaps most importantly, the experience ended with a sense of accomplishment.
“The most fun part of robotics is when you’re at the competition and the judges are watching you while the robot is doing it and after you get to find out who won,” Johnson said. “When you actually see it doing what you want it to, you’re just like, “It works! It works!”