Robotics: making, programming, competing

You can see it in their faces: the broad grins, the light shining in their eyes. You can hear it in their voices:

“This is so cool!”

These are the signs of students who have successfully done something that they’ve never done before. They’ve made something themselves, and got it working by themselves. This is the joy of the “maker” movement, the appeal of robotics, the push to teach programming in all schools.

I see it regularly in computing and robotics classrooms at ICS, and here it is in our High School robotics after-school activity. This small group of students are learning to build and program robots. It’s a small start for them: they got the robot to move in a straight line and then spin around in a circle. But those small steps start the students on a long and exciting journey.

robotThis is the process of building and making things for themselves. Many of us are content to read other people’s content on the web, watch other people’s videos, play other people’s games, etc. Some – the movers and shakers of today – are driven to actually create these things. They make new websites, create new games, build new tools. Robotics is part of that: the process of assembling a robot is an act of making and tinkering, which helps not only to lead to work in engineering and other fields but also to success in problem-solving. Then, once the robot is built, the students have to write a program to get the robot to do what they want. It’s a precise task, and one that requires the students to think through a task in logical steps, write out the code and then check it for errors.

I’ve written about programming before, and its value in modern society. Perhaps Douglas Rushkoff sums it up best by saying that people who can program are the true literates of the modern age: the writers who create new things compared to the majority of us who are simply users. These students are on the journey to being the leaders of the world: the ones who can build the tools and systems that the rest of us use.

It’s exciting to see the students start down that road …and see the glee in their faces when they get the machine to do what they want. There’s an extra bonus incentive for them: competition. ICS is part of ISSEA (International Schools of Southern and Eastern Africa), which primarily sponsors sports tournaments. (Our upcoming track & field event is an ISSEA tournament.) However, the group has branched out into Arts events and – starting last year – a STEM competition in which students are challenged to solve mathematical and scientific problems, including building and programming robots. Last year, our students traveled to Harare to compete, where the robotics team won the KISS award despite problems knocking them out of the competition. This coming April our students will head to Lusaka, and they hope to do better!

We’ve started on our journey. It’s exciting to think about where it might lead…

Cross-posted from my school blog.