When I think about robotics, I usually envision LEGO ‘bots maneuvering around the giant contest boards used in the Arena competition. But that’s only half of the story. Last Saturday, I spent the day covering the Inventions competition at TCEA’s State Robotics Contest, and what I learned in the Hutto High School cafeteria was that robotics is so much more than I had previously imagined.
When the teams began arriving, all toting stacks of boxes and bins filled with their robotic inventions, I noticed that they were searching for their assigned tables and organizing themselves on their own. According to the rules, the kids had to set up their displays without help from coaches or parents. I watched as they worked together seamlessly, familiar and cooperative after months of practice. It wasn’t exactly quiet in the cafeteria; there was a steady hum of activity, but never would I have thought so many kids could make so little noise.
All of the students I spoke with had designed their robots to solve a compelling, real-world problem. The resulting inventions included:
- A machine that loads and then disposes of K-Cups after brewing
- A rescue robot that retrieves injured soldiers from the battlefield
- A robot with flashing lights and rattles that’s designed to entertain babies.
After identifying the machine’s purpose, students spent hours coming up with possible solutions, testing out ideas with various prototypes. Throughout the entire development process, teams kept a logbook, recording the challenges, solutions, and insights that drove the evolution of the robot. At the contest, teams demonstrated their invention and pitched its marketability and then fielded questions from the judges.
Let me tell you, watching kids as young as fourth grade explain the business potential of their creation is far better than any episode of Shark Tank. Between judges, I asked students questions about their experience this year and for reflection on the creative process. Here are a few of my favorite responses:
- I like that I get to use my imagination and then make what was in my mind.
- It’s fun and you always learn new things.
- I’ve wanted to do robotics since first grade. My dad is an engineer, so I have always wanted to build things, and now I have really made something.
- Using your imagination to create new things is the very best part.
- One day we will be rich, and we will each have two Lamborghinis.
Whether they become wealthy supercar owners or not, every student in the Inventions contest proved to me that robotics is far more than a contest. It is preparation for the teamwork, trial-and-error, and thinking that will make these kids successful in college, career, and life.