Connecting school, work, and life through robotics

Administrators and teachers in the Yakima (WA) School District are determined to give their students every opportunity to succeed – in school and in life.

Already home to an extensive CTE program, the district has decided to give students even more opportunities by expanding their robotics programs. To that end, they’ve added nine TETRIX® MAX Packages, two Robotics: Urban Search & Rescue Challenge Sets, and 20 TETRIX MAX Dual-Control Robotics Sets to their program.

We had the chance to speak with CTE Technical Support Specialist Eric Franz about the district’s intentional efforts to grow robotics opportunities for students.

“We were expanding our robotics programs and were looking for products and curriculum that would help with that,” explained Franz. “We had some kits and needed to expand due to increased enrollment in our program. We also had students that wanted to compete in the Urban Search & Rescue competition through SkillsUSA®.”

The SkillsUSA Robotics: Urban Search & Rescue (USAR) Challenge enables students to create a mobile robot, such as those employed by emergency service personnel, designed to secure an area by locating, neutralizing, moving, and disposing of explosive materials. The challenge has become increasingly popular with both students and outside organizations (see “Massachusetts Army National Guard takes lead with USAR”), including Yakima students.

“We first started with only two teams,” said Franz. “Several other students saw what they were doing and wanted to do the same thing. So, we had to expand, and now we have five USAR teams across the district.”

Why Robotics?

With an already strong CTE program, what made Yakima want to extend their robotics reach? The answer, quite simply, is that robotics has a plethora of benefits, making it fit nicely into so many different areas.

Working with robots fosters creativity. When students get the hang of connecting the parts, there’s no telling what they might create. Anything from a simple two-wheeled remote-control robot to a boat with a four-stage compound gear train and beyond is possible. And with sets such as PRIME for quick, easy builds and MAX for more complex builds, students can construct whatever their imaginations can dream up.

“Robotics allows students to be creative and dream up a robot that serves a single function or many,” said Director of Career and Technical Education Will Sarett. “How cool is it that kids get to go to school and learn to build and program robots? Who wouldn’t want to do that?”

Working with robotics provides relevance. Teachers can easily connect robotics lessons to real-world and workplace skills. “We get students who say, ‘I can’t do math’ or ‘I can’t write very well,’” said Sarett. “When they program their robot, we tell them they just used math. When they do their write-up for the competitions, we tell them, ‘You just wrote a paper.’ We connect our students to real-world applications through robotics.”

Robotics provides a natural opportunity for partnerships with business and industry. And the district is going outside the classroom walls to make sure those real-world connections stick. “We are adding some amazing programs that will help students be ready for the workforce,” said Franz. “We just partnered with Byron Automation in Naches [WA], and we are going to add industrial robots to Davis and Eisenhower [high schools] next year with their help. These robots are the ones you see in packing plants, car manufacturing, and our local fruit industry.”

In the meantime, Franz and Sarett are excited for the future of Yakima’s CTE program. Sarett explained, “I want kids to be able to take an increasingly rigorous program of study that ends in a capstone experience that includes industry certification and a job shadow/internship component. We are on our way to put all of those plans in place.”

Connecting a Community

While students are connecting robots, robotics has a way of connecting communities. From families brought together to cheer on robotics teams to industries becoming more involved in helping students succeed, robotics is more and more becoming a common thread.

Yakima has seized upon this link, creating connections between families, schools, districts, and industries. “Once a year we host an Experience STEM project at the Central Washington State Fair for 10 days,” said Sarett. “We bring all our robots down and have the community get their hands on robots and more. We get lots of elementary students using robots on a daily basis at the fair.”

Franz hopes that interest will help them expand their robotics programs into the lower grades. “In the future I know we would like to have some robotics programs at the elementary level.”

Additionally, they are sharing their Robotics: Urban Search & Rescue knowledge with other districts. “Word got out [about our USAR teams],” said Franz, “and we have several other schools in other districts that are very interested in participating in USAR challenges.”

Yakima is a great example of how robotics education can help develop 21st-century skills including those that lead to employability and richer contributions to family and community. It’s safe to say Yakima students are on that exact path.  We’re excited to see the students, and the programs, continue to grow.

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