BRISTOL - A team of Northeast Middle School students in matching gray T-shirts clustered around a laptop and a small tractor-like robot. At the other end of the table West Bristol K-8 students in matching black T-shirts gathered by their laptop and robot.
Each team worked to program their robot to find its way through a maze marked out on the table, collect small plastic “fruits” at five different stops along the way then deliver them to a storage shed.
It was one of the tasks at Bristol’s 2017 Middle School Robotics Challenge. The event, themed “Agri-Bots” this year, had student teams from the city’s four public middle schools compete in three challenges, each with robots navigating a course designed to simulate a farm chore.
Vince Jennetta, Northeast technology teacher, explained to the audience that middle school technology education gives sixth-graders a brief introduction to robotics, and goes heavily into the subject by seventh grade.
“I was talking to my students recently about the fact that many futurists, and now many economists, are saying that in 20 years, when the students here today are in their 30s, upward of 40 percent of the job market will be replaced by automation and robotics,” he said.
For the parents of young children, “that should be an eye-opening statistic,” he said. If the students are familiar with the technology they will be the programmers and plant manager who are not replaced by robots, “so that’s where we really need to have the direction of our education focused.”
All the 75 or so students in the competition have taken their interest in robotics one step further by participating in each school’s after-school robotics club.
“We’ve set up a series of very difficult challenges for them and the only way they’re going to get their robots to do the various things is if they can think creatively and solve problems. Those are skills that transfer into that future I was talking about,” Jennetta said.
They use a block coding language called NXT Mindstorms so they don’t necessarily have to understand a coding language but they learn the fundamentals of programming, he explained.
Many of these students are very self motivated and confident, he said. “They think their way is the right way, but very often they are on a team with four or five other students who have conflicting ideas on how to solve the problem. In the real world being a collaborator and a team player are very important skills, so we are fostering that in our after school program.”
The tasks can also be frustrating, he continued. “We’re teaching the kids how to learn from their mistakes. Don’t give up, there has to be a way. How can we figure out a way through it?”
“And finally, it’s just a place where the kids come after school for an hour or two, once or twice a week, where they’re having fun,” he said. “They’re working with their friends. They’re programming robots. It doesn’t get any better than this.”
The teams had 15 minutes to complete each task, with their performance scrutinized by yellow T-shirted judges - volunteers from local businesses.
Jennetta said the event is considered a challenge rather than a competition because the emphasis is on programming and collaboration skills rather than pitting the teams against each other.
In between each task, individual students talked to the audience about their experiences.
Madison Chasse, Northeast eighth-grader, said she has been interested in robotics for the last two years. “We have to learn how to program everything and make it work and work as a team to complete a goal that is kind of difficult,” she said.
Noah Bernier, another Northeast eighth-grader, said he has learned three basic principles from the program: “friendship, communication, and collaboration.”
He asked for “a big round of applause” for the teachers and schools for giving them the chance to find success with robotics and for the parents who let the kids stay after school to do it.
Jonathan Passander, a Greene-Hills eighth grader, said his school has “a really great team.”
“We work really well together, and we delegate,” he said. “We have different jobs for each person and at the end it all comes together.” He also thanked the teachers, the judges, and everyone who came out to support them at the challenge.
Jennetta credited the Bristol Business Education Foundation for financially supporting the competition, with the help of Jeanine Audette, who acts as the school district’s liaison to the foundation.
The foundation helped out with the seed money years ago to purchase the first round of Lego NXT robotic equipment to get the program started, he said. This year the foundation is giving a grant of more than $6,000 to help the program upgrade to the latest equipment, the Lego EV3 model.
Susan Corica can be reached at 860-584-0501 ext. 1802 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The four competing teams were:
Chippens Hill Middle School’s Autobots, with faculty advisers Sarah Brown, Rodney Ellsworth and Robert McConnell.
Greene-Hills K-8 School’s SWAT (Students With Advanced Technology) Team, with faculty adviser Adam Sample.
Northeast Middle School’s TSA (Technology Student Alliance) Team, with faculty adviser Vince Jennetta.
West Bristol K-8 School’s WAR (Wolves And Robots) Team, with faculty adviser Rocco Martino.
The Northeast TSA Team (Technology Student Alliance), with faculty advisors Jennetta and Dave Luchina.
The three challenges were:
Fruit Cultivation, in which the robot had to travel through farmland, locate fruit, and deliver it to the shed.
Pumpkin Patch, in which the robot had to move four pumpkin plants to specific locations in a pumpkin patch.
Harvesting Vegetables, in which the robot had to collect vegetables and bring them to a farm stand.