BERLIN — Gears are turning and the power is running for the Worcester County Robotics Academy.
On the heels of a strong first year, the program is getting ready for the summer and the next school year, which will mean more members and more competitions.
When the academy was first introduced as a concept last May as a way to spice up the county’s afterschool programs, the original pool of students involved was minimal.
“It grew from a very small nucleus of interested kids,” said Stephen Decatur High School (SDHS) Afterschool Programs Director Sharon Smith.
Over the course of this year, however, the academy, which consists of students from SDHS, Worcester Technical School and Snow Hill High School, exploded in popularity to a degree that Smith said she has never seen before.
“It was contagious. They wouldn’t go home,” she joked.
The original idea for a robotics program came from current Academy Coach Michele Kosin, who had led similar projects in Texas and eventually moved to the Eastern Shore already loaded with experience in the robotics field.
Now consisting of about two dozen members from three different schools, the academy participated in four major robotics events over the course of this year, winning several safety awards and a Judge’s Choice award in the 2011 Greater DC Botball Regional Tournament held in April.
The competitions include everything from remotely controlling a self-constructed robot through a set of tasks to pre-programing a robot and letting it loose autonomously to tackle challenges. Some competitions feature a mix of the two. All robots are built by students in the academy who are given a kit with some basics like motors and casings and then allowed to design the machine from the ground up.
Like Smith, Kosin said she was surprised by the immediate positive reaction she noticed in kids in the program.
“They’re workaholics,” she said.
Kosin explained that the academy takes a new approach to competition. While the events that the team participates in are competition based, Kosin revealed that the overall spirit of the academy is one of “gracious professionalism;” an attitude that she considers unique.
“The robot community works together,” she said.
Unlike with traditional sports teams, Kosin said that everyone involved in robotics is always ready and willing to help another team either with spare parts or advice, even if they are the competition. Smith agreed and also stressed how great it was to see students from three different county schools synching up so well and working together.
“There should not be boundaries or county lines,” she said.
After the success of this year, Kosin is excited to see where the program will go and what it could evolve into in the future. SDHS Technical Education Teacher Lawrence Ryan hopes the academy will be able to make the transition from purely afterschool to the classroom.
“I would like to see it become curricular, not co-curricular or extra-curricular,” he said.
Ryan views the addition of the robotics academy to the county’s afterschool options as a much needed booster shot to help modernize Worcester.
“I’ve been saying all along that we need to upgrade, update, get with the times,” he said.
The academy offers just that and serves as an introduction to skills that carry over into the job market, according to Kosin.
Besides the obvious engineering benefits, Kosin revealed that the academy imparts problem solving skills, language comprehension, detailed recordkeeping and documentation, and time management, among many others.
“We’re trying to connect it all,” she said.
Smith seconded the thought and pointed out that the program is producing well-rounded, jack-of-all-trades students, a strategy that schools in general will be moving toward with the introduction of the Common Core curriculum next year.
“Our whole curriculum is going to be approaching education in this way,” she said.
For the present, Kosin pointed out that the academy is helping students secure scholarships for college and is giving them the skills they need to be competitive when looking for careers in a wide variety of fields. Those skills should be even sharper next year, with the introduction of more competitions, including potentially hosting a tournament next June, as well as a partnership with the Navy working on underwater robotics.
“We’re helping the Navy write the curriculum,” said Kosin.
The academy will also be active this summer and will introduce younger kids to engineering through mentoring programs, which Smith asserted are a big hit with middle school students around the county.
“I think that’s a really impressive thing these kids do, the mentoring,” she said.
The team even has their own Youtube channel under the header “Worcester Beach Bots” where they post videos of various competitions, and Kosin encourages anyone with an interest in robotics to take a look at the academy in action.