Robots teach teens about science and collaboration


Alex Cater, 14, from West Valley High School, and Nathan Sanches, 14, from Lathrop High School, take a break from building their robot. Photo by Azara Mohammadi.
From left, Alex Cater, 14, of West Valley High School, and Nathan Sanches, 14, of Lathrop High School, take a break from building their robot. Photo by Azara Mohammadi.

Diana Campbell
907-474-5229 
11/4/14

The basement laboratory looked like a playroom for robots and teens.

Aluminum construction parts, nuts, bolts, motors, wheels and drills covered tabletops. Tight knots of highschoolers gathered around half-made robots, looking for the best place to attach a motor or wheel.

“We’ve taken off more parts than we put on,” said Nathan Sanches, 14, a freshman at Lathrop High School.

The lab is part of a University of Alaska Fairbanks science outreach program funded by the NASA Near Earth Network. The program is in its fifth year, said Jeremy Nicoll, the principal investigator on the project. It is meant to introduce science, technology, engineering and math education to Fairbanks junior high and high school students, and to supplement such education.

Using robotics is a great way to teach younger students science, Nicoll said. If someone is thinking of a science career, it’s best to take as many science and math courses as possible before college. For students who go to smaller schools, such as the Effie Kokrine Early College Charter School, the science outreach program offers the opportunity for such classes.

“For some students, their first exposure to real science is in college,” Nicoll said. “We need to spark interest before that.”

One of NASA’s goals is to inspire the next generation of scientists, technologists, engineers and astronauts. NASA has funded projects with UAF through the Alaska Satellite Facility at the UAF Geophysical Institute. Several years ago, NASA asked ASF to apply for a grant to conduct the robotics program, Nicoll said.

It’s a five-pronged project: Hold a NASA careers panel at UAF, have an ASF internship for UAF students, hold a high school science class, have a science and robotics club and partner with other existing UAF outreach projects.

The robotics lab is new and is available to all Fairbanks seventh- through 12th-graders. It is located in the lower floor of the West Ridge Research Building on the Fairbanks campus. One wall is lined with bins loaded with tools and robot parts. At one end of the room is a robot arena where students test their creations. Desks for two lab monitors are at the other end. Long tables and chairs are in between.

The robotics lab isn’t just for students to be creative and learn science. It’s to prepare them to compete, using their robots. Every year, a nonprofit company called FIRST Tech Challenge holds a competition for such students.

This year, the challenge is called Cascade Challenge. The team must build a robot that can fit inside an 18-inch cube, but it may expand after the competition starts. The goal is to release 160 plastic balls in two sizes from a container in the arena, then gather and toss them into three moveable cylinders ranging in height. The robot must perform other tasks, as well.

On a recent Friday, three girls from Effie Kokrine hunched over graph paper penciling out designs for their robot. One of the things they have to consider is how to get the two sizes of balls into the cylinders.

It’s a worthy challenge, the girls said.

Girls and robots
From left, Briana Kremer, 14, Claire Ketzler, 14 and Deanna Falkner, 14, all of the Effie Kokrine Early College Charter School, discuss their robot design in the UAF Robotics Lab. Photo by Diana Campbell

“I like being able to think logically,” said Briana Kremer, 14, a freshman at the Effie Kokrine school.

At another table, boys were testing expanding robot arms.

“OK, I’m not going to do that,” said Jasper Holton, 15, a sophomore from West Valley High School. This is his second year with the competition.

Wendy Camber, Holton’s mother, said her son’s problem-solving skills have expanded since he’s been involved in the club. Another plus is Holton has access not only to a high-tech lab for robotics but also to other facilities at UAF Geophysical Institute.

“It gives him an introduction to the GI and scientific research at UAF,” she said. “A lot of UAF people participate and make themselves available.”

The FIRST Tech Challenge encourages collaboration with others, something they call “gracious professionalism.” Nicoll likes to see the seasoned robotics veterans help out the rookies and sometimes vice versa. They also work with other Fairbanks robotics teams.

“It raises the whole group to a higher level of competition,” he said.

The competition requires attention to detail, noted Rebecca Sanches, mother to Nathan Sanches.

Last year Nathan explained how he attached and removed an expandable arm six times because it was slightly off kilter.

‘There’s a word for that, you know,’” she told him.

“OCD?” he said.

“No, engineer,” she replied.

One of the sketches by girls robotics team from the Effie Kokrine Early College Charter School.
A sketch from the girls’ robotics team at the Effie Kokrine Early College Charter School. Photo by Diana Campbell.

ADDITIONAL CONTACTS: Jeremy Nicoll at jbnicoll@alaska.edu or 474-1546. Diana Campbell, UAF Geophysical Institute public relations office, at 474-5229 or dlcampbell@alaska.edu.

ON THE WEB: FIRST Tech Challenge at http://youtu.be/ABmBxCwHV94