High school robotics clubs prepare students for competitions and colleges alike

High school robotics clubs prepare students for competitions and colleges alike

    We’ve all seen the pictures: a cordoned-off rectangular area, full of rings or balls, obstacles, lines of tape, and a robot. Outside the zone is a team of high schoolers, watching intently. Someone may be holding a remote controller, relaying complex commands to the robot. Sometimes the robot must act alone on pre-programmed instructions. These kinds of competitions are becoming more and more common across the globe. High schools are offering more robotics classes and clubs, and organizations are recognizing the value of getting students engaged in this growing field. But these competitions are just one stepping-stone, not the end-goal. If a portion of the students that participate in these types of events truly care about the subject, they will continue to study it in college and perhaps make a career of it. So getting these clubs off the ground at the high school level is far more important than any prize money or prestige.

    Many schools are eager to start up robotics clubs. There is often funding available to cover the start-up costs of buying equipment. It also provides some alternative after-school programming to engage students who aren’t interested in traditional activities like sports or arts clubs. Robotics falls under the umbrella of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields, so schools want a way to integrate this kind of material into the classroom setting. These robotics groups don’t necessarily need to be large; a dozen students and an instructor, either a teacher or volunteer, can comprise an effective group.

     These clubs are often the first exposure students have real robotics. The devices they make require skills beyond the simple “follow these steps” of building Legos. It takes time and practice to get to the stage of the students in the picture, with complex controls and working robots. But these clubs start from the beginning and walk students through the whole process, developing the skills along the way. These clubs cultivate a “team” mentality, which is partly necessitated by the limited supplies and partly a reflection of what it is to work in a scientific field; groundbreaking work is almost always carried out by a team of researchers, sometimes numbering in the hundreds or thousands. It is much more difficult, although not impossible, for students to pursue this type of hobby on their own. So these clubs provide a vital service by getting students interested in the field of robotics.

     Although competitions are still largely the focus of these clubs, they are just one factor that compels students to stay involved. Most have an interest in the field of robotics, or they wouldn’t stay in the club. But high school is by no means the end of the road. In fact, the competitions are great exposure for colleges looking for students who want to pursue a career in robotics. Admissions offices and recruiters know that these students are driven, intelligent, and capable of working as part of a team to achieve a complex goal. This is just one more step down the road to a college education, then a job in a promising, growing field.

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     Even for students who don’t necessarily want to do robotics, these clubs provide numerous skills and opportunities to explore other fields. For example, students who design and build the robots may be interested in a career in engineering. Those who code the robot for its autonomous phase may want to check out software design. Colleges often require students to have an intended major when they come in as freshmen, so getting ahead of the curve and figuring out specific field they are interested puts students who participate in robotics at a distinct advantage.

     Competitions like these don’t necessarily stop in college. Instead, they become more advanced and professional. They are worth grades, grant money, career opportunities. But the same skills that students learn in the high school robotics club carry on to college. They may be more sophisticated, but the robots are still just devices that need to be designed, built, wired, programmed, and tested. Instructional handouts from a teacher running an after-school program will be replaced by assigned readings and tests. Of course, teamwork will still be crucial. It takes practice to become a great student, especially in a complex field like robotics. That is why these clubs are the perfect fit for any aspiring tinkerers, designers, builders, and thinkers. High school is a time to initiate, engage, and hone these skills that will carry them through college and into the real world, where their metallic creations will reflect the hard work they’ve given over the years to become leaders and innovators of tomorrow.

Derek Capo