By Drew Sullivan
HANOVER — If automation is the future, South Shore Regional Vocational Technical High School is working to prepare students to meet that challenge — even during the summer.
The school hosted its Engineering and Robotics Camp last week, as middle school students learned how to make and compete with their own robotic creations.
Teacher Jerry Shaw ran the camp for its second consecutive year, this time alongside Greg Stevens, both of whom teach at the SST. “When I started teaching, I saw robots as a good vehicle to teach various means of engineering in an exciting way.” said Shaw.
Both Shaw and Stevens agreed that engineering and robotics camps like these help teach students invaluable skills in problem solving, key skills for future careers.
“A lot of learning happens when things fail,” said Stevens. “Learning how to take failure, learn from it and improve. That’s engineering. I think teaching them how to fail and learn is important.”
On Wednesday, July 10 the finals of a friendly competition between student teams and their robots concluded. Participants used their robotic designs to earn points by picking up objects scattered around the playing field and placing them in a box. This competition tested the campers dexterity and creativity.
Afterwards, students logged onto laptops as they began to learn how to further program their robots.
“Who here knows anything about coding?” asked Shaw, as a few students sheepishly raised their hands. They worked with a simple software called Easy C, that would give their creations more range of movement. Shaw talked them through the process, as he occasionally walked around to answer questions and offer assistance.
Controlled chaos ensued as the campers switched on their robots, some spinning wildly while others remained stationary. Shaw continued his lesson, talking about different types of computer languages and how they can be used. Many of the students, like Rockland eighth-grader Owen Maher, were simply excited a camp like this existed. “Since elementary school I’ve wanted to be an engineer. This is an awesome program. I wish there were more available.”
The idea for this camp was the brainchild of Superintendent-Director Dr. Thomas J. Hickey, who originally approached Shaw about the position, due to his prior experience creating related curriculum and engineering camps for other schools.
“I’ve been doing this since I started teaching. Writing curriculum and teaching junior high kids in the summer,” said Shaw. “Junior high curriculum doesn’t leave room for a lot of exploration.”
Greg Stevens, who teaches physics at the school, spoke briefly on the differences between instructing middle schoolers and high schoolers.
“They’re on different levels. Some sixth graders are at one level, some at others. There’s a wide range of development, so it’s more challenging.”
SST Assistant Principal Sandra Baldner touched on the importance of these camps for prospective students. She noted that her favorite part was “the opportunity for the students to see the instructional tools that they’ll have access to as students here, and the potential for career pathway development.”
The students themselves enjoyed the challenges involved and their ability to modify the robots at will.
“You can do whatever you want with it,” said Marshfield middle schooler Benny Barber. “No two are the same. I like the customization.”
While working, student Joe Catto of Weymouth agreed. “It’s fun to do the coding part of it. To build it up and figure out how it works, different technologies and stuff.”
A concerted effort is also being undertaken to include and attract more girls to the STEM fields.
“This has been a huge push, especially with engineering education at the school level,” Shaw noted. “The younger you get them interested, the easier it is to kind of pull them in later on. Ideally though, there would be more female engineering teachers, science teachers, and mentors coming to work in the classrooms.”
Lastly, Shaw highlighted Boston’s special importance in the field of robotics while addressing the future of robotics in the classroom.
“The Boston area in particular is one of the strongest areas in robotics in recent years, especially with Boston Dynamics and iRobot and other companies.” said Shaw. “In the classroom, I see robotics taking on multifaceted realms. Trying to get teachers and students involved with robotics, to understand what’s going on with them and have exposure, as well as getting robotics to more underfunded areas.”