It’s hard to know which way to turn when beginning a robotics program whether it is students asking you to create a program, your own personal interest or, in some cases, you’ve been “volun-told” by administrator to begin a program. Whatever the reason, it’s important to remember to start with some guidelines to help your program stay on track to success.
I believe success in a robotics program is measured not by student achievement, but by the learning process. The best advice I can tell you as you begin is to find a veteran robotics teacher/coach either within your district or in another district. They can give you insight from their experiences to help you begin your program. Also, contacting your local TCEA area director or your regional education center can help steer you in the right direction and locate those veteran programs near you. It is also important to find a robotics inservice or training so you can become familiar with the basics of programming. TCEA offers excellent trainings for teachers.
One of the first things you will need to do is to buy your equipment. Robotic equipment is expensive, but the most cost efficient are the LEGO brand robotics kits.
You can order LEGO robotics kits from the LEGO Education website. Funding can be done in one of several ways: you could use your school’s allotted money to purchase kits, fundraise, or find a sponsor in your area. Whichever way you go, you will need robotics kits and some kind of device used to program them. I believe laptops are the best with the most options, but Chromebooks and iPads can work well, too. If you use LEGO robotics, go ahead and purchase the LEGO Expansion Kit because it includes the extra parts and pieces your students may need for building a robot.
How many students you have interested in your robotics program will be the deciding factor to how many robotic kits you need to purchase. You will need one robotics kit per team. My suggestion is to start small with one or two teams and then grow from there. Most contests call for no more than four students per team. Be sure to read the rules on the number of students that can be on a team because it varies from contest to contest.
It’s important to establish guidelines pertaining to your robotics equipment. Obviously, you should have an AUP for students that are on computer equipment, as well as a contract that the students sign at the beginning of the year on the treatment of school equipment that includes the robotics hardware. Organization is key when dealing with boxes of thousands of pieces and other equipment. It is important that you “brand” or tag each box for each team with a specific color. There are tips on how to do this on the TCEA Robotics website.
Setting practice time is always tricky with busy students. Whether the robotics program is after school, a class, or a weekend program will make a difference in the decision of practice times. Times can vary, but one to two hours is best. Too short, and you barely get started before time to clean up. Too long and students get tired and cranky. Once practice times are established, it is a good idea to create a calendar and schedule to give to your students, their parents, and campus administrators.
Once you begin, it is a good idea to establish certain boundaries for your teams. Protecting yourself legally since you will probably be traveling with students is essential paperwork. I have students and parents fill out all of this paperwork at the beginning of the year; this includes behavior contracts, emergency contacts, waivers needed for TCEA, and student expectation paperwork. I also have guidelines and consequences established in writing on attendance to practices and behavior at robotics events. Be sure to check with your local school district on the requirements it has to travel with students.
One of the trickiest parts of putting a competition robotics team together is helping students work successfully in a group. There are several ways that you can group students into teams. You can allow the students to pick their own teammates and see where everyone falls into place. I personally let my students give me a list of who they would like to work with on a team, then I’ll make the selections according to what I have observed and know about the students.
Teams for me are not always set in stone. I move students periodically as we progress through the season due to dropouts, failures, and if a student cannot attend a particular meet. With TCEA robotics, teams can consist of up to four students. You can have a team of one or two with TCEA; but our goal is to get as many kids involved in robotics as possible, so having full teams is often times important, especially if you have corporate sponsorships.
I have discovered the best teams happen when you have one person role needed for competition robotics. Those roles include a programmer, someone who builds well with LEGOs, a student that is a good problem solver, and an organizer. This fourth person is often the glue that holds the team together. They make sure the team gets to the contest on time, keeps the team moving forward, acts as the “clerk” of the team, and maintains peace within the group.
What I like about this fourth person it is a way to get a student involved in your program that may not normally sign up for robotics or technology classes. However, it is important for every person in the group to be familiar with all of the tasks and the challenge rules of the contest because so many times a team member may be sick for a meet and other team members will need to step up and take on their responsibilities at a contest.
After you’ve bought your equipment, created your teams, and trained your students in the basics of robotic programming, it is time to begin getting ready for a challenge. The best advice I can give you is to read the rules, read the rules, read all of the rules. Take time to sit down and read the entire challenge rules and then sit down with your students and go over the rules so they have a clear understanding. Discuss possible solutions as a group.
It’s important as a supervisor or teacher that you step back after this point and let the students do their own building and programming. I usually set a time limit of four weeks for building on the robots so students will move on to programming. When they are in a TCEA competition, they are in the pit by themselves and need to know how to fix the problems that could occur. It is also important to stay updated on the rules at the TCEA Community group.
It’s a Mental Game
There is a psychological aspect to the creation and building of a robot. Students become very passionate about their project and their creations. This sometimes makes it hard for them to work within the team. Sensitivity to their feelings and “coaching” students through upsets and disappointments is important. Keep in mind when selecting the students that you take to the TCEA meets that they need to be trustworthy and able to contain themselves in an independent environment such as the “pit.” I include this in the contract about conduct and behavior that students and parents signed at the beginning of the year.
Another important factor to practicing is that you need to take a “hands off” approach and allow the students to work independently. Your job as a coach should be managing behavior, managing equipment, making sure the students have what they need, and answering questions about the challenge. The most successful teams I have coached are the ones that are independent, know the challenge rules well, are able to program independently, and are a self-motivated team. Those teams do not always happen every year, but that is my goal to get them to that point.
There are many opportunities to use LEGO robotics kits in the classroom. Be sure to explore applications and find training in robotics so you can use these amazing devices to the best of your ability. Being a robotics coach is rewarding and challenging and mentally fulfilling because you get a front row seat to the creativeness and amazing potential of your students.
Tami Hull teaches at Early ISD and has a 20-year teaching career in science. She has been a TCEA Arena Robotics coach for nine years, having qualified for the State Contest every year. She is a Texas 4-H Robotics board member and State TCEA Arena Robotics Judge.