January/February 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 4

Starting a Robotics Club with Students at the Helm

Posted: Monday, November 4th, 2013

by Tamara Araya

It all started off with an email forwarded from my principal and it read, “Any of you interested in starting a robotics team?  If so, respond to the email below.”  The attached email was from a district employee, Kathy, whose husband and son recently started a robotics club at their high school.  The email asked, “Why hasn’t anyone started a robotics club in our district?”  There are six major high schools in our district and not one had a robotics club, so I naively replied with great enthusiasm, “I would love to!”  Did I mention that I have a biology credential and absolutely no robotics background what so ever? 

That weekend I met with Kathy and her husband at the Los Angeles Regional FIRST Robotics Competition and got to see firsthand what they were so enthusiastic about.  I was in shock.  Never have I witnessed so many students working, laughing, chanting, and crazy about a project like this one.  The support by parents and businesses was nothing I had seen before. This was more than just a group of students interested in computer programming, it was a team of grant writers, fundraisers, accountants, graphic designers, engineers and business people all working together as a team.  I fell in love.

Inspired to include more STEM in my classroom, earlier that month had I transformed my electricity and magnetism unit in my physical science class into a project-based unit where the students built a remote-operated submersible that completed different tasks in the school pool.  I found the project to be stressful and unpredictable. With this experience was fresh in my mind,  I considered Kathy’s question about why no one had started a robotics club in our district.  Is it because of the lack of money, materials, knowledge or time that drives so many teachers away from completing such a task?  I knew I didn’t want another project where I put more time into it than the students, where I would be organizing the meetings and keeping the team going.  I had so much on my plate already.  I am a mother of two young children, an advisor for the solar boat club and was teaching an extra hourly.  The idea of leading another project was just not possible, especially a robotics club.  However, after seeing so many students interested and engaged at the robotics competition, how could I say no?  I told myself it would have to be run and organized by the students and that I would be there to mentor and help find support when needed.  I think this has been the best decision I have ever made.

The students came to the first meeting and immediately started organizing and dispersing tasks to discover what is involved in a robotics club.  From there forward they met once a week to share information about what they found during their research and soon the club was formed.  The natural leaders began to take charge of the meetings and others followed without hesitation.  As we met during the summer to work on robotics, students found their strengths and started running committees.  I supported the students by giving them a room to work in and found mentors from local business and universities to guide the student questions and projects.  Although I could not help answer technical questions, I was good at helping them find the people who could.

Having a student driven club is no easy task.  Most students are naturally unorganized and they have a hard time seeing the future.  They are inexperienced at working with adults and the real world.  But one thing they are good at is getting back on their feet when they fail, and they bring a big desire to learn.  With positive reinforcement, self-reflections and constant critique, students are learning and adapting to their environment.

Open ended and thought provoking problems are often areas of instruction that are difficult to cover in a science class assignment.  Clubs like these give students the opportunity to experience these types of problems on a daily basis.  Students walk away from this experience with leadership skills, improved critical thinking and real life application that no science class assignment comes close to offering.  It is for these reasons that I stepped out of my comfort zone and started the first ever student run robotics club at my school.

My students’ goal is to win, but I have more in mind for them.  I want them to experience an engineering business first-hand and understand how it takes many different types of people to make a project happen.  I want them to experience leading and learning from their mistakes.  I want them feeling safe to try something new and know how to ask for help when needed.  No matter how we do in the FIRST Competition, the students are already showing me, and themselves, that they have met these goals.

Tamara Araya is a CSTA member. She teaches at Long Beach Poly High School. 

Written by Guest Contributor

From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy: http://www.classroomscience.org/disclaimer.

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