A southeast Missouri robotics team has only been around for two years, yet it has already competed in the Robotics World Championships. Julie West, the robotics coach at Cape Girardeau Junior High School, says the team won the Design Award at the state championship to qualify for the worldwide competition. She says their robot did not look like anyone else’s.
“It didn’t work the same as anyone else’s. That gave us some difficulty. We had to tinker with it while we were there, but we were willing to tinker with it. We were one of the only teams that had our hands actually on that robot with screwdrivers on it because it required maintenance. It wasn’t as neat as some of the other robots because it wasn’t a box design. It was something that we drew up. It was still under construction. That’s what they (the judges) liked. They actually liked that it was a product of our imagination. And so, then we changed it even more before we went to worlds. That’s what they want. They want something that has been truly engineered,” West says. “I have been thrilled to help them (students) access this higher thinking ability. To see them think on this level this quickly, it’s just been a wild ride. I’m excited to see where we go next because teams that start competing on this level usually stay on this level.”
The team, called TigerTech, includes 12 students in seventh and eighth grade. West says the students are special.
“Watching their growth just over a past two years has been probably one of the highlights of my participating as a coach. They see it, too. I’ve actually seen improvements in their grades. I’ve seen improvements in their overall character,” says West. “Many of them say that they are different because of their involvement with this program. They are much more confident in who they are and they feel like they can walk into high school with their head held high because they have something to be proud of. At the end of the day, that’s what matters to me the most.”
What is the importance of teaching robotics in schools? West says the lessons learned go beyond the classroom.
“Living in Cape Girardeau, we have a lot of kids who really struggle socio-economically and who struggle with reading, struggle with math, who have so much that they bring, more than their backpack. Many of them will carry so much in their backpack because of what they carry. I have kids who will bring their entire closet because they are basically couch surfing,” she says. “And so, you ask yourself the question, ‘Why robotics? Why should we budget all of this money? Why should we have all these STEM initiatives?’ At the end of the day, I think what I have realized is that these kids need something that they can look toward. Ultimately, if they can realize that there is a potential to unlock something within themselves and that it has been there all along, that is the most powerful thing that we can ever give them. What I tell kids all the time is, ‘I want to see you leave thinking differently than when you walked in.’
She says she wants her students to understand that they are capable of so much more than they ever thought they were capable of.
“I would love for these kids to realize that there is a higher level of thinking within them,” she says. “If robotics is the tool to help them realize that, then let’s do robotics in these schools. I have seen kids who have walked in who are just completely turned off of education, they are completely turned off of life it seems. When we start turning on these robots and we start building some things in the classrooms and they start seeing what they can do, they start playing with the code and they start seeing the affect of what their code is doing, and they start seeing they are capable of doing difficult things, they realize they have potential and they have power and they have something that’s worth fighting for. If they can translate that into their other classrooms and then maybe translate that outside of school, I think that has a real transformative power – not just in their lives but also in communities as a whole, in their families, on their street, in their block, in this whole town. I tell kids all the time, I’ll look them in the eye and I’ll say, ‘You are important – never forget it.’ It’s true. Kids need to know that they’re important – not because of how they think but also just because they exist. I think this is a tool for doing that.”
Although the team did not win any awards at Worlds, West says you haven’t seen the last of her budding engineers.
“We have a very competitive team. They really don’t like coming home empty-handed. They are very much fueled by that,” says West. “When we found out that we wouldn’t get awards at Worlds, they were so frustrated. I kept looking at them saying, ‘This is basically the Olympics of robotics. Be excited.’ They said, ‘Let’s just hold onto this and remember it for next year.’ I think that the only thing my team would want me to say is look out Worlds 2022 because we are coming back.”
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