Robohawks Rock Robotics

Mr. Thomas Daley

Standards Based Learning has become a phrase well known to any CVU student. The underlying concept of the system is that students will graduate from CVU with proficiency in a common set of life skills. These themes tend to be very general, such as communication or problem solving—abilities that can be applied to any situation. What if there was one program that could cover all of the graduation standards? The answer: robotics.

CVU robotics teacher Olaf Verdonk explains that participating in the Robohawks, the school’s premier robotics team, requires math, physics, mechanical knowledge, effective communication, goal setting, and more. For students to use these skills outside of the robotics lab, they would need to take several different classes, furthermore; CVU may be expanding its robotics program over the next few years. The nature of the global job market is different than it used to be, and CVU wants its course offerings to adapt in response.

More Than Building Things

“I teach programming through robotics,” Verdonk clarified, “there is a course called Computer Programming at CVU, but it’s very abstract. Here, if I program a bot to move forward and turn left and it moves forward and turns right, I have immediate, visual feedback.” He explained that the need for failure is important to learning programming or any skill, for that matter. Robotics lends itself to learning from mistakes: due to a robot’s ability to provide its users with prompt evaluations of code, mistakes can be traced to their sources and mended. CVU junior Sam Crites, one of the leaders of the Robohawks, noted, “coding the robot has taught me the value of persistence, which can be carried on for any field you may choose to go into.” Robo

The Robohawks are certainly no strangers to learning from failure, however; they are a team, similar to any sports team—they work together, win together, and fail together. Verdonk defined success for the team as learning, which can take a variety of forms: “success is realizing that nothing is perfect. Always working to optimize.”

Being a team, they must communicate and collaborate effectively in addition to programming a robot. “I love the fact that it covers so many things. Tons of real-world skills. It covers everything,” stated Verdonk, referring to the Robohawks program. Similarly, Crites commented, “Robohawks has taught me to work collaboratively with a team, which I am sure to use in the future.” Additionally, Crites described the new content he has become familiar with: “Robohawks has pushed me to go outside of my comfort zone and work with tools in the metal and wood shop, which I will use if I go into an engineering field.”

Education for Everyone

The robotics lab and metal and wood shops are by no means restricted to the hardcore, aspiring engineers. In fact, many students find working in these spaces to enhance their other classes. Some take classes through the Technical Education department, while others have classes that make use of the shop.

Cale Bombardier, a junior, whose only formal experience in the shop has been with Basic Wood and Auto/Power, says, “I’m grateful for the CVU shop, not only for me, but for the teachers that are in there fabricating or fixing things for themselves or others. The community also loves it and it’s a source of many access classes.”

Cale Bombardier takes the bike water pump for a spin in the wood shop

Cale Bombardier takes the bike water pump for a spin in the wood shop

Bombardier is also taking Natural Resources this semester where he is using the shop to construct a bike water pump that will be installed behind CVU sometime this summer, allowing for water to be moved from the fire pond to the gardens in a sustainable fashion. There are many other classes that incorporate the shop and Jeff Tobrocke—CVU Design, Engineering, and Technology Educator—into their content. “For example, [Wulff] came in and made mini electromagnet motors, and, with Tobocke’s expertise, helped teach his pre-chem and physics class about magnets and power,” Bombardier noted.

A Makerspace Hub?

CVU has been developing plans for three “hubs” as they’re called. One of which is the Makerspace Hub. Verdonk is involved with planning this, but also acknowledged that we already have a Makerspace facility at CVU—the robotics lab and shop. He described it as “one of the best Makerspaces in Chittenden County” and “in some ways, better than Generator” (a public Makerspace in Burlington). As Bombardier humbly stated: “I feel more empowered than other schools, some people want to go to tech to have opportunities like this, but it’s right here in my own back yard. That is my favorite part. It’s always open when I need work, and Tobrocke always helps me when I need help with things like TIG welding, or technology I’m not familiar with.”

CVU’s 3D printer, located in the robotics lab

CVU’s 3D printer, located in the robotics lab

When asked about the future of robotics curriculum at CVU, Verdonk described it as bright. He pointed to Act 77, which mandates Personalized Learning Plans for students, and the transition to Standards Based Learning, which CVU is in the process of undergoing. Both of these systems call for problem solving and critical thinking…what robotics combines best. However, participation in Robohawks “fluctuates” due to after-school activities and changing sports schedules over the course of the year. Verdonk hopes for Robohawks to be integrated into the school day; after all, “it covers everything.” He also remarked on the great degree of support for Robohawks in both industry and college. Many schools are offering scholarships for high school students involved in robotics. For instance, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute awards a $40,000 scholarship every year to a participant in FIRST robotics—the organization through which the Robohawks work and compete.

Global industry is becoming more and more automated, making coding a more and more important skill. At CVU, course offerings work to help students learn coding and robotics—skills required for an increasing number of careers. Verdonk expressed frustration with how the new federal administration claims to be bringing back blue collar jobs: “Coding is the new blue collar job,” he said with pride.