Welcome the Robots

Robots

Robots are all around us these days. They exist as vacuums that automatically clean our floors and as components of cars that can park themselves. But while robots are functional and fun, the skills needed to build a robot and control it are also applicable in many other areas, according to Stephen Fyfe ‘87, professor of computer science at Central. To promote these skills, Fyfe and students in the computer science department helped host a robotics competition that allowed high school students to test their talents in programming and design, as well as their creativity and professionalism.

The robots arrived at Central on Dec. 14. Teams of students worked to build robots that were put through their paces during a game with a “Block Party!” theme. The event, which included 24 teams from around Iowa, was a qualifier for the state competition of FIRST Tech Challenge. FIRST is a not-for-profit organization founded in 1989 to encourage young people to pursue education and careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.

Stephen Fyfe

Stephen Fyfe ‘87, professor of computer science.

Student teams are generally formed as extracurricular clubs at high schools, most often with a teacher serving as advisor. Fyfe says many teams also enlist a local business as a sponsor to help defray costs. In the fall, the year’s theme was announced and students received 
a kit to start building their robot. They were required to stay within certain parameters, such as size, but were allowed to incorporate additional materials. Students could choose to program the robots using either LabView or RobotC software applications.

On the day of the event, held 
in the Central fieldhouse, the 
teams competed in matches on a predesigned 12-foot by 12-foot field, completing tasks to score points.
The game consisted of a 30-second autonomous period, in which the robot could only operate via pre- programmed instructions, and a two-minute driver-controlled period. Teams scored points through actions such as placing blocks into goal zones, parking on a bridge and raising a flag on a flagpole.

Central students were also busy
on the competition day, managing the pit area where teams prepared and answering technical questions. Other students worked to reset the competition area between matches, and two also aided the judges. In addition to a winner of the overall competition based on points, teams won awards for areas such as design and creativity. Central students worked with the judges to interview teams and provide input.

According to Fyfe, competitions like FTC provide a way to engage high school students in STEM and more specifically to involve them in computer science. “There aren’t as many courses in computer science (in high schools) as there are in math and physics, so any exposure students can have at an earlier age is very important,” he says. He cites a coming shortage of computer professionals and sees a need to get students interested in the field.

RoboticsWhile team members learn the technical skills of working with 
a robot, they also gain broader skills in programming, design
 and engineering that can prove valuable in many fields. “This goes way beyond robotics,” Fyfe says. The competition also introduced many students to Central College. “We wanted to show students that a discipline like computer science can be studied at a liberal arts college like Central,” Fyfe says. “We want to get them thinking about Central as an option.”

Not only do students learn important skills in computer science, they also learn what
it means to be a courteous professional. FTC actually has 
a trademarked term for what it hopes to instill in young people: Gracious Professionalism. The idea encompasses emphasizing the value of others and respecting individuals and the community, all while doing high-quality work and competing to the best of their ability.

Fyfe says, “I really like that part of the competition.They learn how to work together, to be competitive and yet work with another team. So you see teams helping each other out even though later they might be competing against each other.” During the Central competition, three teams qualified for the state level, which was held in February at the University of Iowa.

This June, high school students 
will have another chance to explore robots during a workshop Fyfe
 is hosting on campus. Students entering grades 8-10 can take part in a robotics programming summer camp June 9-13. They’ll learn how to program a robot using simple Python commands. Perhaps one day these students will use the skills they acquire to develop new solutions in computer science or engineering.

Planting the Seeds for STEM

Providing experiences with STEM fields early on is a goal not only of Central College, but also the state. Governor Terry Branstad formed the Governor’s STEM Advisory Council in 2011, and Central College President Mark Putnam serves on the council’s Executive Committee.

Central also plays host to various STEM events, such as the iExploreSTEM festival. In April, area 6th-12th graders were invited to Central’s campus to take part in the festival, which included a variety of hands-on activities. The college worked with the local organization PEERS (Partnership for Excellent Educational Resources for STEM) to produce the festival.

Central students were able to share fun experiments and science principles with younger students. Corporate partners in the community also provided exhibits. Much like the robotics competition hosted on campus, the iExploreSTEM festival provided students with a window into the world of science, technology, engineering and math.

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