Building Bots with Legos: Upper School Robotics Club
Severn’s Robotics Club is building and coding their way toward creative problem solving using legos, laptops, and a passion for figuring things out and making it work. For students interested in design, building, and programming, the Robotics Club offers the opportunity to explore computer science in an informal setting, master new tech skills, and learn how to work on an engineering team.
Prior Knowledge Not Needed, Creativity Required
Advised by Upper School Math and Science teacher Mr. Alan Kraut, the Robotics Club serves as an entryway for students to learn about engineering and programming through tinkering and experimentation. During the fall, as the club year is just getting under way, the format of their meetings is very loose. Mr. Kraut introduces everyone to the equipment and essentially lets the kids find their own way.
They work with:
Lego Technics blocks and other building materials
iRobot’s “Create” programmable base robot
Camera sensors to detect color blobs and distance
Laptops and dedicated controllers
Procedural programming languages like C and Python
Mr. Kraut is there to support and help steer the group when needed, but the work is largely student-driven. After the first year of Robotics Club participating in an outside competition, Mr. Kraut has an agile attitude with regard to his role going forward.
“Initially it’s not very formal — it’s more of a time to explore and see what we come up with. Sometimes I will try to nudge the kids in a more academically challenging direction, but that depends on who is in the club and what level of skill they bring to the table. For students that have no experience, I take a more hands-on approach or pair them with students that have more expertise. It’s very collaborative and flexible, you’ll get out what you put in.” — Mr. Alan Kraut
Authentic Experience on an Engineering Team
During the spring, for members that are ready to get the full experience of working on an engineering team, the club prepares for the Botball Robotics Challenge. Botball is an educational robotics competition for middle and high school students. Although specific preparation for the competition doesn’t start until team members are given their kit of materials seven weeks prior, Robotics Club members use what they’ve learned through the fall as the building blocks for designing, building and programming their autonomous robots for the competition.
The Botball competition is an authentic, long-term engineering project. Students learn how to work as a team through an iterative design process — it’s much closer to a full-scale engineering project than other things they might try at the high school level. They have to develop team dynamics and structure, allow time for planning and execution, and manage a workflow among themselves. It’s as much about teamwork and the process of problem-solving as it is about design, building and code.
The biggest thing we learned is that the most complicated design isn’t necessarily the best. A lot of times the more complex you make something, the more chances you have for something to go wrong. So the simpler it is the more consistent the robot will be. In the competition, some of the robots that scored the highest in some areas scored the lowest in others. Consistency is key to do really well.” — John Owen ‘17
Severn Robotics Club fared well in their first Botball competition with peers from the Maryland, DC and Virginia region. They were awarded a judge’s choice award for excellent use of sensors noting their ambitious use of the camera to guide their robots to complete each task.
Something For Everyone: Builders and Coders Alike
The club has something for every skill and interest level. There are students that really dive in, come to every meeting and participate in Botball in the spring. There are other students that come explore, tinker a bit and check back in throughout the year. If a student wants to learn procedural programming languages like C and Python, this club gives them the framework to explore that. If they want to focus primarily on structure and design, they can do that as well. It’s up to the students in the club to choose their own level of involvement.
The Right Balance of Support and Student Choice
Innovative ideas don't just happen; they require work and persistence. Robotics Club members and Mr. Kraut spent many hours outside of regular club time to create, program and test their robots and they did so out of their own enthusiasm for building, code and design. Our students have the desire to learn more — to reach beyond what’s required and really expand the possibilities before them. With the right amount of support and room to grow our Robotics Club members of today will be the engineers of your world tomorrow.