During high school, in a world where your "value" among peers is based upon popularity and image, it is quite easy to go throughout the hallways unnoticed. The under-the-radar student is a unique breed, belonging to the underground realm of dreamers, thinkers, after hour workers, and doers.
Geeks, nerds, overachievers... Call them what you may, these young men and women are the unsung leaders of our future.
Varsity athletes tend to get the most attention from peers during this level of schooling. Football and basketball are at the top of high schools' extracurricular focuses, often times overshadowing the creative fields.
According to College Sports Scholarships, only 3.3% of high school women's basketball players continue on to play in the NCAA. For high school men's basketball the probability is even less, with only 3.0% continuing on to the NCAA. Of these NCAA basketball athletes, only 1.0% of women and 1.2% of men continue on to play at the professional level. Keeping these statistics in mind, we can take a look at the percentage of STEM oriented students that continue on to professional careers.
An article on U.S. News reports that 40% of bachelor's degrees earned by men and 29% earned by women are within STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math education) fields. At the doctoral level, the percentages increase with 58% of the degrees earned by men and 33% earned by women being in STEM fields. Although these men and women are professionals in their careers, they are not idolized by the majority of society to the degree that athletes are.
Why does being an athlete give you more societal attention than being an engineer?
Students across the globe are working to change this conception by building robots and creating a "varsity sport of the mind".
On March 3rd-5th I attended the FIRST Stronghold Robotics Competition at Waterford Mott High School in Waterford, Michigan. If you have not previously seen a robotics competition, I suggest you find one and take the time to explore these inspiring students' minds.
As I walked through the doors of Waterford Mott's gym, I felt as if I was entering another world.
The floor of the gym was transformed into a medieval themed match field, complete with medieval themed music, involving technical and interchangeable obstacles that each teams' robot had to conquer in a race to gain the most points. Judges lined the match field, referees paced the sidelines, and very decorated fans cheered in their seats. A total of forty teams participated in this specific tournament, each with their own boisterous uniforms and chants. I was very impressed with the level of crowd participation and sportsmanship among the teams.
It is safe to say that I saw more school mascots at the match than I have ever seen during a football game.
If you were to exit the gym and take a short walk down the hallway, you would find the pits. This is where teams can perform any needed adjustments and repairs on their robot. Team scouts can also be found in the pits, searching for the best teams to make alliances with depending on the robots' capabilities.
Despite the endless hours put into building the bots, it always seems to come down to the last minute. Inventors work on the spot.
In the six weeks leading up to the period of tournaments, advanced building, designing, and programming are all required. The teams then travel the state, putting their robot's technology up against one another.
One of the best parts of this industrial arts experience? These students are learning critical team building skills for their futures.
As a major partner of the STEM fields, robotics is one of the first chances that many students have to intertwine their knowledge to real world applications. Even if the students do not plan to pursue majors within STEM, robotics gives them an advantage to whichever career path they may choose.
While at the FIRST Stronghold Robotics Competition, I had the opportunity to interview three members of Riverview Community High School's Robo-Bucs Team 5263. I hoped to learn what the students' roles were in the creation of their robot. I also wanted to see how they reacted to being part of such an advanced, yet seemingly underground, activity. Julia Barnes, Garrett Filkins, and their mentor Sean Gill were all happy to participate. The interview is as follows...
Friday, March 4th, 2016
Today we are at Waterford Mott High School for the FIRST Stronghold Robotics Competition. In our interview we are going to focus on the industrial arts and creativity within robotics and the unsung leaders of our future.
Hello and thank you for joining me today! Can I start off by getting each of your names and roles on Team 5263?
Julia Barnes: Julia Barnes and I am a programmer.
Garrett Filkins: My name is Garrett Filkins and I am one of the head builders for the team.
Sean Gill: My name is Sean Gill and I am the lead mentor and also their teacher at Riverview Community High School.
Julia and Garrett, what are your career goals? Do you plan on going to college? If so, where and what do you want to study?
Julia Barnes: I’m not sure where I want to go to college yet, but I do want to study computer science.
Garrett Filkins: I do plan on going to college, but I’m not that far yet as to where I want to go. I have an undecided career path, although I am leaning towards law.
Before we begin talking about robotics, what else have you participated in during high school? Are you in sports, band, or any other clubs?
Julia Barnes: I am on the drum line in band.
Garrett Filkins: This is about all I’ve done in high school… (laughs.)
Now for a bit of an unconventional question... Would you consider yourself popular? (When asked this question, both Julia and Garrett smiled and laughed a bit.)
Julia Barnes: I would consider myself well-liked, but not necessarily popular.
Garrett Filkins: Absolutely not.
How did each of you get involved in robotics?
Julia Barnes: I was taking a programming class and enjoyed it a lot. They needed help on the team and I just decided to do it. It seemed pretty cool.
Garrett Filkins: I had previously expressed interest in robotics and I received a letter in the mail. I decided to join.
Sean Gill: During the robotics team’s first season, my wife and I went and watched a competition. It was really interesting, very creative, and very hands on. I felt, as a teacher, that the hands on kids kind of get the shaft in school. I thought it was really cool that it was a more creative sport.
Sean, were you personally interested in robotics before joining the team? Had you participated in something like this? Do you happen to build robots in your free time?
Sean Gill: Nope, no experience whatsoever. More of just hands on stuff with tools around the house. I enjoy that stuff and it was nice to see that without wood shop in our high school now, this is kind of taking the place of wood shop. It’s more of an engineering based wood shop.
What does each of your roles on the team actually involve? What do you actually do?
Julia Barnes: We [programmers] program the robots to do whatever they need to do for the events. We have to work together with the builders to figure out what the drivers want, what the builders want to do, and all of that. Right now we are programming using Java language, last year we used Labview, and we are doing this all through a program called Eclipse.
Garrett Filkins: We [builders] assemble the robot after we decide what we want. For example, if we have an idea that we want to go through with but the original idea did not work, we find as many ways possible to get that idea to work properly.
Sean Gill: As a mentor, I am the main coordinator. I coordinate the schedule and help the students apply for scholarships. The kids do 100% of the effort.
Julia and Garrett, I know that there is a build, design/programming, and actual competing part of the competition. What is your role in today’s tournament?
Julia Barnes: Programmers don’t really have a role today unless we need to program our autonomous on the fly. Today is mostly for the builders and drivers.
Garrett Filkins: Today I am a head driver for our team. I operate the arm of our robot. We hope to get the ball into the high goal. There are two goals, a high goal and a low goal. With the low goal you get less points, but the high goal is harder to shoot with more points.
In readying the robot, what was the most difficult obstacle or challenge for you this year?
Julia Barnes: I would say that working together with the builders and trying to make it to every single practice was the most difficult part for me.
Garrett Filkins: Trying to climb up the tower was our most difficult obstacle. It was just a really hard task to do. We wanted to go under a low bar, which is 14 inches, and the high bar which we need to climb up is 72 inches. We did end up getting it though.
Sean Gill: I think the most difficult thing is just having the students find their role on the team. We have builders who day one will be builders, but at the beginning we also have a lot of kids who are a little bit absent. My main challenge as a mentor is to find where each student is going to fit in because barely any of them come in with building experience. None of them really come in with programming experience. One thing that is going to be good in the future is now that we have middle school robotics and more programs at the middle school that are STEM based, hopefully in a few years they will have more prior experience than what we have right now.
Sean, I know that you are also involved as a coach for the high school men’s swim team. You see people getting records up on the board, is there anything outstanding in robotics that you have seen and can talk about?
Sean Gill: I think the most outstanding thing I have seen is the commitment from the kids that are there all the time. Compared to swimming, we have put in twelve hour days. Swimming is very involved and it is the same exact thing in robotics. To be honest, at least with swimming you are done with swimming. With robotics, even when you get done for the night, you are still going home and researching until nine or ten at night. You think about it nonstop. Even when I am teaching, I’ll walk into somebody’s class and be like, “What about this idea? What about that?” You don’t really do that in swimming. Maybe change the lineup, but with robotics you think about it 24 hours a day.
Julia, Garrett, and Sean, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me. Good luck today!
Julia Barnes: Thanks!
Garrett Filkins: No problem, thank you.
Sean Gill: You are welcome!
It is truly amazing to hear and see how much work these students have put into accomplishing their goals. You can see the love for robotics in their eyes and speech. Each student I interacted with was very well spoken, which I thought was special. This shows that not only do these students care about what they are creating, but they are also learning as they do it.
Attending this competition gave me the opportunity to experience creativity and spark through young STEM minds. These high school students are an inspiring group of people, only just beginning to leave their mark on our future. While under-the-radar students may not get the attention that they deserve in high school, in the real world these students will be at the forefront of scientific advancements. They will lead the progression of our future.
It is honestly so cool to be a geek.