July 27, 2017
Seventh-grader Jaden Lao slowly approached a makeshift maze at the center of the room, a small robot in hand and an unconvincing look on his face.
This was his 15th attempt at programming the robot to respond to colors and impending walls before navigating its way out of the maze. Jaden was frustrated and quickly running out of time before the end of class at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s 2017 Lego Robotics Engineering Academy.
“I don’t know,” he said, wearily, as he placed his robot at the starting point and folded his hands behind his head.
But it worked — not seamlessly, but the robot found its way to the exit.
“I still don’t like it,” a disappointed Jaden muttered.
And it was back to his computer to reprogram the motor rotations.
“These kids are used to instant gratification,” said Fred Traver, an eighth-grade math teacher at Lynch Literacy Academy. “They’re not getting it with this. It’s trial and error. You gotta come down, you work at it, you go back. Their frustration levels were reached many times. Their perseverance is really being tested here. It’s impressive.”
‘Trial and error’
Two dozen Amsterdam seventh-graders arrived on the RPI campus Sunday night to participate in the academy. It has grown over the past eight years from a day trip to a weeklong residential academy, supported by an RPI grant.
“From Day One to now [Wednesday]? They were quiet, they weren’t talking,” Traver said. “Now, not only are they working within their own pairs, but they’re going to other pairs and talking. ‘How can I get my robot to work?’ A lot of them are figuring it out by trial and error.”
In addition to robotics competitions in the classroom, students have participated in a scavenger hunt guided by GPS, bowling and experiencing life in the dorms. There will be a ceremony at 1 p.m. Friday, July 28 in the Jonsson Engineering Center at RPI for parents to witness the final challenge.
Hannah Lightner, a rising sophomore studying bioinformatics and molecular biology at RPI, is leading the academy this year. The college’s Center for Initiatives in Pre-College Experience is hosting four weeklong academies this summer.
“Throughout this week, we’re teaching them different programming and building concepts,” she said. “They’re learning about color sensors, infrared or IR sensors, ultrasonic sensors. We’re teaching them a lot about how the robots move with different motors. We’re incorporating switches and loops into their programming. It’s in an easy-to-use software for them.”
Hannah said the group has impressed her.
“I love them so far,” Hannah said. “They’re getting the concepts down. The first few days are always rough, trying to learn everything and establish a baseline of what to know for the rest of the week. But now, we have all the students running their programs. They’re able to watch them and say, ‘I need to change my motor rotations. I need to add this or subtract this.’ They’re able to troubleshoot on their own and that’s our goal, to get them self-sufficient and being able to problem solve in more of an engineering way.”
On the “almost 20th” try, Jaden released his robot into the maze, hoping for crisper, more precise turns than his last go-round.
His teachers applauded. His buddies patted him on the back. But was he satisfied? A smile slowly crept over his face.
“I feel accomplished,” Jaden said. “It took me almost 20 tries, but I didn’t want to give up. I wanted to keep trying until I actually did it.”
A fellow student, Garrett McHeard, wasn’t having as much luck.
“We’re trying this again,” Garrett said. “I’m literally not leaving until it’s done. You’re going to have to kick me out of here.”
He tried once more, but the robot just bumped into the foam walls of the maze.
“Alright,” he said optimistically, just as Hannah called for students to clean up. “We’ll get it tomorrow.”