Students work together to learn robotics at a non-profit center | Way of life
ELKHART, Ind. – You could say Killian Townsend is curious.
âI remember when, I was like in third or fourth grade, I dragged that big tube TV down the street to my room and tore it up,â Elkhart High School’s first student said.
Likewise, Weston Markham, a 16-year-old student at Northwood High School, said he enjoyed playing with Legos as a child and enjoyed building things for as long as he can remember.
Eventually, Killian and Weston found their way to the E3 Robotics Center, a nonprofit program that trains K-12 students in the STEM-related disciplines of robotics and code writing.
Brian Boehler, president and executive director, said that the overarching goal of E3, which is funded by grants, businesses and private donors, is simply to engage students of all grade levels in STEM.
For kindergarten children and their siblings or neighbors in elementary school, this involves doing activities with Lego blocks.
âThe program begins at the younger levels with Duplo Lego and Standard Lego, where children work at problem-solving through engineering construction challenges, and they are then tasked with finding solutions in small groups,â a said Boehler.
Activities become more complex as students get older.
Older school kids work with Legos that include motors and sensors.
âThese Legos are different from the ones you had growing up,â Boehler said. “They can make their creations interact and move according to the world around them using these sensors and motors.”
Older students like Killian and Weston work together to create robots that can perform tasks.
For example, last year, the Weston team made a robot that they programmed to roam a field and gobble up rubber balls.
âThe head part has a roller in the front that will spin around and bring balls into it,â he said. “The whole head can lift up and if we turn the roller the other way around it can spit out the balls.”
The robot seems to move and perform each task as if by magic. But it is not magic. Instead, team members planned out every aspect of the robot’s mission. Some of the team wrote computer programs to educate the robot. Others built the robot. But all had to work together.
So while many people focus on technical skills like computer programming, students also need to master skills like communication, group work and knowing how to organize tasks, Boehler said.
âYou mix all of these things together because some kids will be able to do different things,â Weston said.
Killian agrees, noting that he worked as one of his team’s programmers.
âOur main programmer did mostly standalone things, ie where the robot does things on its own, and I mainly did the manual part where the drivers control it (usually with a joystick),â said Killian said.
Boehler has a long history with robotics at Elkhart and with the E3 Robotics program. He was a member of the state’s first team at Lego League when he was a student at Mary Feeser Elementary School.
He graduated from Memorial, then attended Ball State University, where he majored in urban planning and development.
âUnfortunately, I graduated in the middle of a recession, so few cities wanted to rethink or rebuild,â Boehler said.
It was around this time that the Elkhart schools asked Boehler to help them set up the system’s robotics program. At that time, he was working for another nonprofit STEM program in Elkhart County called the ETHOS Innovation Center. There he helped develop the district’s STEM and robotics program and soon other schools and homeschoolers joined us.
In 2012, Boehler and co-director Brent Soper founded E3.
Boehler said there was enough interest in robotics and STEM in the region to accommodate more than one program.
âWe haven’t really seen a cap (the number of students) that robotics is able to achieve yet,â he said.
The E3 program had over 120 students before the pandemic began and even managed to work with around 60 students last year. Boehler hopes to reconstruct the numbers this year.
Statewide robotics programs have grown as students and parents see the benefits of learning STEM skills such as programming, as well as soft skills such as communication, planning. and building the teams employers seek, said Chris Osborne, vice president of operations for First Indiana Robotics, which is the nonprofit that works and oversees the state’s robotics programs.
Osborne noted that there were 900 students from 42 high schools participating in the first robotics competition in 2012. That number has grown to 58 teams and around 1,600 students planning to participate in 2020.
The First Tech Challenge, which is for students in grades 7 to 12, and the First Lego League, which is an introductory program for elementary school students, have seen similar growth, Osborne said.
Weston, meanwhile, said he believed he had benefited from his participation in the program.
âIf I hadn’t been in the program, I would never have learned the technical skills,â he said, âbut secondly, I wouldn’t have learned all the ways of communicating and planning things. “