Photograph courtesy of Oakwood Friends School
Pizza-delivering drones like the DomiCopter being tested by Domino’s aren’t part of the robotics program at Poughkeespie’s Oakwood Friends School — but the students are learning to design and build all kinds of similarly cool gizmos.
“We started the course about seven years ago, initially for students interested in getting more deeply into the practical applications of robotics,” says Chad Cianfrani, who heads up the program at the coed boarding and day school for grades six to 12. “About half of the students intend to go into the engineering curriculum. The other half, at this point, just have an interest in tinkering.”
Robotics can be defined as technology involving machines that can autonomously perform tasks. While many schools have robotics clubs nowadays, for-credit courses like Oakwood’s are relatively rare. The classes are usually comprised of about 10 to 12 kids, mostly juniors and seniors. Cianfrani explains that there are many nuances in this fast-growing field. “In class, we talk about the difference between, say, a robotic arm on an auto assembly line that can do a repetitive task very quickly, and robotics that tie in the ability to use sensors, almost like intelligence or autonomous thought. Then, the students might build a vehicle containing a motion sensor that knows when it’s getting close to a wall and turns, or a light sensor that senses when it’s going from a light to a dark surface. The kids get a sense that the devices have a bit of ‘personality’ to them.” Even the classroom features a robotic component. “We have sensors on the window shades; if it gets too bright, a little motor kicks on and the shade automatically goes down,” Cianfrani says.
And then there are the catapults: “The students love building them,” says the teacher. “They see all the aspects of the engineering portion, and they learn that to build something takes time.” When finished, the structures can range up to eight feet tall. “The kids hurl everything from shoes to grapefruit to experiment with them,” Cianfrani laughs.
Younger students get in on the robotics action, too. The popular Lego Mindstorm kits, which provide hardware and software to create small, programmable robot-style gizmos, serve as the platform for many projects. “The Mindstorm sets include little motors and sensors,” Cianfrani explains. “It’s neat for the younger kids, because the projects can be scaled down for them. They might not be doing the programming, but we walk them through the logic, asking questions like, ‘If you built a little car, how could you make it stop? What would you tell the right wheel to do to turn the car?’ It helps them to think like an engineer.” Last year, he said, two students in the class loved to play piano. “So we decided to take sensors and make little automated, player-piano hands. They’re kind of creepy-looking, but it was neat to see the little creations tapping on the keyboard.”
Oakwood hosted its first-ever summer robotics course — a weeklong session open to local kids in fifth through seventh grades — in 2012. A similar outreach robotics program for local second- through fifth-graders is slated to take place this month, with the curriculum developed by Oakwood juniors and seniors (check www.oakwoodfriends.org for more information).
The future of robotics may seem like mind-bending sci-fi. But from drones to electronically guided cars, they’re already on our doorstep. “Right now, Google has more than half a dozen autonomous cars driving around San Francisco on any given day,” Cianfrani says. “I tell our students that it’s almost a guarantee that by the time they’re in their 40s or 50s, these kinds of vehicles will be driving down the highways.”
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