Where to Learn Robotics in the Bay Area

A year ago, a handful of students and parents at the new Design Tech High School in San Mateo County formed a robotics team. They had no money, no tools, no real experience programming or building a robot from scratch. But they were interested in competing in something principled on technology and problem solving that the entire school could get behind.
Now they have a shop space full of band saws, welding equipment and fabrication tools, a team of 40 students and a prototype that they are feverishly readying for the competition in the FIRST Robotics Regional Competition at San Jose State University in April.
“You talk robotics and students are drawn because they are interested in building things,” says Christine Boles, whose son attends the school nicknamed  d.tech. “We had our robot out driving around our space, going over obstacles and it was incredible … We had 75 people gathered around and quite a few students coming up to us and asking how they could get involved next year.”
Robotics at the high school level has been gaining in popularity locally. It used to be a discipline that appealed to engineer-focused kids and adults, but is now becoming mainstream popular and tangible for those who have little experience with programming or math.
“Seventeen years ago, I can remember talking about robotics at a very basic level at the university and we didn’t even have a program at the time. Now every institution has a robotics program,” says Jim Beck, FIRST Robotics California senior regional director. “I think students are connecting the fact that our lives are made better … are made easier by the robotics type of products out there. There is just a ton to be created in our lifetime and they see the practical application of robotics.”
Beck has seen the number of high schools participating in the FIRST Robotics Competition in California rise to 258, with about nearly 95 percent of them returning each year. FIRST also hosts several other competitions for kids starting as early as kindergarten. In addition to FIRST, there is Botball, VEX, NASA and many more organizations that support competitions throughout the country.
In most competitions, students build a robot under specified guidelines, such as size and cost, to perform tasks through an obstacle course. Teams compete against each other to take top prize. In the FIRST competition, there are also prizes for entrepreneurship, design and more. Some competitions provide the materials for the students, which can be as simple as LEGO bricks and a vacuum cleaner base, while others, such as FIRST, require students to actually build the robot with sourced materials.
There are also camps, such as TechKnowHow, which runs programs throughout the Bay Area focused on robotics. The number of summer camp options for engineering-minded youth as young as 7 are as plentiful as sports or theater camps.
One reason: It’s easier to teach now, says Bob Mancini, owner of TechKnowHow, which has been around for 20 years. When he first started, kids had to learn text-based coding. Now there’s software that allows them to drag and drop icons that provide direction to the robot.
“Every year, it grows and I see more and more programs offered. We can finally give them the right tools. Once you give them the tools, they get to be creative and really excel at it,” he says.
No Experience Necessary
A lot of students who join robotics teams do not have prior programming experience. But that’s not a problem. The older students mentor them, setting up a valuable learning experience for both students, says Johnny Tsao, the math teacher and robotics team advisor at Hillsdale High School in San Mateo.
Every club has a team captain and usually multiple advisors. While each club is structured and managed differently, most advisors say they like to let the students do the leading, offering advice and direction by asking probing questions that help them problem solve.
“I am as hands-off as possible. I want the kids to do as much as possible and I will let them flounder for a while … then I’ll push back with some question and have them outline the pros and cons of the problem,” says Michelle Grau, the advisor to the 3-year-old robotics team at Nueva High School in San Mateo.
In this way, students are more engaged and develop skills way beyond how to program a robot to shoot a ball at a target. Aside from the programming and construction skills, they are learning how to source materials, create a budget, problem solve, lead a team and manage their time — a big one since some teams meet four hours a day, six days a week during the months-long competition window. They also learn fundraising, and self-confidence developed by succeeding at unfamiliar tasks.
“They are going to build some cool robots, but that’s not really what it’s all about,” says Grau, who was on her high school’s robotics team in Sacramento.
Robotics is a way for students to bring all facets of their education together, Beck says.
“What we try to show is the practical side so they understand the physics and math principles through construction and working in a game situation. It makes a difference. These are life changing skills. They will finally be able to understand how all this stuff comes to play,” he says.
And they do, quite quickly. D.tech student Thomas Weese joined the team because he was intrigued by the task of building a bot. Yet what he’s learned has little to do with programming.
“I’ve learned an unfathomable amount of business skills from the mentors and from experiences I’ve had through robotics. I am a better public speaker, a better manager,and a better negotiator,” the freshman says.
Jennifer Aquino is a freelance writer in the Bay Area and mother of two.
FIRST California. Host FIRST Robotics Competitions. www.cafirst.org
TechKnowHow. Offers robotics camps in the Bay Area. www.techknowhowkids.com
Botball. Host regional and international robotics tournaments and workshops. www.botball.org


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