Students hone robotics skills as technology advances

| February 29, 2024 | 0 Comments

There is no shortage of news stories about artificial intelligence. And though robotics and AI are not synonymous, the two often come hand in hand. Each can work to the benefit of the other, and it’s likely that most robots of the future will have some AI capabilities.

GEN 2 (late 2023) of Tesla’s Optimus Humanoid Robot.

Robots and AI

What actually is “AI,” or artificial intelligence”? The Oxford Learner’s Dictionary tells us it is “the study and development of computer systems that can copy intelligent human behavior.” With the help of AI, today’s robots are being used in myriad ways. Most people are aware that robots have been helping assemble vehicles for decades. They do basic tasks like assisting in the packaging of our food, and they do lifesaving things like helping defend our military personnel.

Robots have also been instrumental in humanity’s exploration of space and have helped us delve deep into the mysteries of our oceans.

Today’s robots possess increasingly autonomous capabilities. Many are able to perceive their surroundings; they can learn and adapt because of better artificial intelligence algorithms. Self-driving cars are essentially robo-cars, and many surgeries are now assisted by robots.

Gen 2 of the Optimus humanoid robot was recently revealed by Tesla. Its abilities have greatly improved. This model has better balance and, Tesla claims, full-body control. It seems to be capable of doing simple daily chores.

These advancements open up new opportunities for many of today’s young people. As automation gradually takes over a higher percentage of repetitive-task jobs, people capable of solving problems, thinking critically and creatively and bringing ingenuity to their work will be in high demand. Of course, well-trained humans will be building and programming all the machines of tomorrow.

Robotics in schools

Many schools have robotics classes or clubs and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) programs. In answer to — and aiding in fueling — student interest in robotics, there also is a plethora of robotics and STEAM competitions.

Campbell Hall, an independent Episcopal school featured monthly in our Student News columns, recently had a team qualify for the 2024 VEX Robotics World Championships to be held at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas, Texas.

TEAM 34690A’s Travis Park, William Ho and Miles Sanger (left to right) with the Build Award they received at the Chaminade Showdown in November 2023.

The school’s 14-member team was split into four groups. Team 34690A, with William Ho, Miles Sanger, Asher Avisar and Travis Park, qualified for the World Championship when they traveled to Taiwan to compete with more than 140 teams from all over the world and became Tournament Champions.

Each year’s competitions require the competing robots (or “bots”) to complete a new specific task. This year’s task, Amanda Dye, the team’s coach, told us, is similar to a soccer game in that the robots score points by competing to get the most “balls” into a goal.

COMPETING at the Chaminade Showdown, Team 34690A with other students.

Based on early competitions, the students modify their designs, Dye told us. Team 34690A “learned that their robot needed speed,” said Dye. This third iteration of their robot is “very efficient at playing offense and defense.” The team also designed its bot to be capable of going over a bar placed on the playing field by competition designers to make things more difficult.

Dye told us that California schools are sending only 20 teams to Dallas to compete in the World Championships — the number each region can send is based on how many teams are in the area. The coach told us that she and assistant coach Chad LeCroix have noticed that, with team 34690A’s success, “There is a renewed energy (in all the teams) that has been brought by the winning team’s passion and enthusiasm.”

Marlborough and Fairfax

Campbell Hall is not the only local school that has seen success with its robotics teams. Marlborough, for example, has had teams advance to the FIRST World Championships three times — most recently at the 2023 competition. Fairfax High has received three Inter League Tournament awards this season. While they won’t be advancing to the state championship this year, Fairfax teacher Gerardo Perla believes that they are well-positioned to accomplish their goal of advancing to the Southern California Championship next year.

Teachers we spoke to made it clear that the tasks their robotics students are performing challenge them to become innovative troubleshooters. Dye described these young people as motivated and tenacious.

Regardless of whether these local kids go on to have careers in robotics, the skills they are learning will clearly serve them well as they step into the world of tomorrow.

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