WINTERS — Winters Junior High and High School has a robotics program that has competed at state level events and has made a lasting impact on the students and teachers that have been part of it. The program continues to strive under the guidance of teacher Monte Angel.
“If I spend my whole career doing this and it helps just one kid, then I’m happy,” Angel said. “It’s been a success.”
Angel has seen the program change kids over time.
“One kid came in with his shorts hanging down and had a rough edge about him. He said, ‘I want to build robots.’ So, he joined the program and kept telling me that he was going to win state. He became a team leader and did fantastic work. The night before the state competition in Houston, he was sitting at his computer here about 7 p.m. I told him that we had to go soon because we had to leave for Houston in the morning. Suddenly his face went pale and I asked him what happened. He said, ‘I just accidentally deleted my entire program.’
“This was a program that he had been working on for months, literally. He looks up at me and says, ‘Well, I’m just going to have to start over.’ He rewrote the entire program and we finally got out of the classroom a little after midnight. In Houston he was in 25th place after day one but on day two he moved up to sixth place. That’s the change it can make in a kid.”
The students build the robots from Legos and use motors and control modules in the kits. They design, build, and program the robots. They compete in region first, and if they end up in first or second place, they qualify to go to the state competition.
The competition starts with each school receiving a 20-plus page open-ended engineering problem to solve. There is not a teacher’s guide or any answers, the students have to figure it out all on their own. The kids are mostly in junior high but there are some gifted and talented kids from the elementary and some older students from high school.
The program started in the 2009-10 school year and has flourished under the guidance of founder Melissa Gerhart and Angel. Presently there are about 40 junior high students and 12-15 high school students.
It is an after school program and completely voluntary. Every student is there because he or she wants to be there. The school funds the program and Angel says that the support of the school is key.
“The school has done an awesome job of supporting us and getting us the kits to compete,” Angel said. “A kit costs around four hundred dollars and we currently have approximately forty kits.”
As for the students in the program, Angel said, “You never know who is going to prosper. Girls and boys perform equally well. They’re all creative and they are all tenacious when it comes to solving problems.”
One of the bigger impacts of the program on the students is that it teaches them to work in teams to solve problems together. Angel points out that there are the expected disagreements from time to time.
“The students handle the disagreements over the best way to solve the problem and deal with the aggravation that can cause,” Angel said. “They learn how to handle that, how to overcome it, how to work together and how to be a team.”
The group receives the engineering problem in August and they compete in the regional tournament in January. If they finish in first or second place, they compete in the state tournament in April. The engineering problem is designed to be difficult and takes the full amount of time to address, sometimes up to the last minute. Angel points out the uniqueness of the engineering problem.
“The problem is open to interpretation,” Angel said. “When you go to the contest, you find out if you interpreted it correctly.”
One aspect people don’t always consider when it comes to these programs is the creativity it takes to solve these engineering problems. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) problem solving requires creative thinking and unique approaches to finding that solution. Even though it is all based on science, there is an art to it, a beauty that you have to be involved with to appreciate.
“We use an engineering approach to design a system to solve the problem,” Angel said.
The classroom they use is orderly, as you’d expect any engineering office or lab to be and it’s filled with Legos of all varieties, including electric motors and control modules. A robotic elephant that looks as if it just walked off the page of an engineering textbook stands on a table as a testament to the tenacity and creativity of the student that built it. You would need a mathematics degree to calculate the number of hours that student put into thinking about that elephant, designing it, building it, working through the problems encountered along the way, writing the program then programming it, and, ultimately, creating something wonderful.
Angel feels that the program helps students and enhances their learning in other classes. “The kids learn to think about thinking, Angel said, adding that the program helps in many ways. “Some kids that have struggled in other classes perform exceptionally well in the robotics program.”
The program can also build confidence in the students as they compete. The competition is not divided as UIL is.
“Class 1A-6A all compete at the same time,” Angel said.
Angel feels that the student must be successful for the course to be successful.
“Many times, at the end of the day, we have to tell the kids that it’s time to go home. They’d stay here as long as we’d let them,” Angel added with a chuckle.
Success comes in all sizes and Angel is cognizant of that fact, “There is no success so small that we won’t celebrate it.”