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Robotics camp promotes hands-on approach to math and technology

The study of robotics is dropping down into the middle school curriculum of the Syracuse City School District, starting with a two-week summer camp.

Bryan English, one of the high school teachers who teaches the ins and outs of making the erector set style robots, says the program - which is already employed in the high school - is a way to get students more interested in math and technology classes.

"It's basically like the erector set of the future. It throws in some motors, and some programming, and it's great hands on learning for the student. that's a big part of it, the hands on aspect. Because a lot of times they get burned out doing a lot of paperwork. They come in here and they can work on it, they can build and test it out and compete," said English.

The camp's culmination is a competition that pits student-designed robots against each other in a kind of miniature boxing ring. They're commanding their erector set like contraptions to move balls from one end of the ring to the other.

"They'll build the actual robots from all the different parts. And each year there's a different goal for the game. This year, as you can see behind us, is a really large inflatable ball and smaller plastic balls. They have to design a robot that can pick each type of ball up and move them across the field to score points. The further across the field they get them, the more points they get," said English.

So what do these kids get out of moving balls with a robot?

"All these students are learning about gear ratios, mechanics. The mathematics of torque ratios. A lot of the kids have had trouble where they couldn't lift up enough weight, so they had to mathematically calculate out how much weight can they lift with this gear ratio. What can they do there. And another really big thing is the team skills. There's three to four students per team so they really have to work together," English said.

For the students, tinkering with the contraptions can be frustrating. But that ties in with what Justis Lecuy, a senior, says is the biggest lesson he learned.
"Probably not to give up, because there's a lot of times where something's not happening and you want to quit, but you can't," Lecuy said.

Malik Warden, a junior, is adjusting a robot that was having trouble. For him, the biggest lesson also doesn't have anything to do with mathematic calculations.

"To always expect that what you first put out isn't going to be the best. You've got to always look for something to fix. Even if you think it's perfect, you've got to tweak and tweak some more until it's even more perfect," he said.
For the middle school students in the competition, the attention is more on the nuts and bolts of creating the successful robot.

"I've learned how to build a robot. How to build a base that connects the claw and the wheels. I've learned what some of the screws are called, like Allen wrenches, motor screws. I've learned how to connect the motors and program them," said Amara Clemente Johnson, who will be going into seventh grade this fall.

The students that win the local Syracuse City School District Regional Robotics Championship will be able to move on to the VEX Robotics World Championship. And the skills they're learning on the way, says English, will take them further than that.

"This is a great gateway for students who are thinking or even considering going into engineering, computer science or any field really," English said. "These skills are transferable to all jobs. Team building, career work, anything of that nature, students can learn from this experience for sure."