Students at Riverdale High School in Pierrefonds are catching robotics fever. Symptoms include immersing oneself completely in a school project; enthusiasm for getting up and going to school in the morning; bursts of creativity and a propensity for coming up with real-life solutions to real-life problems.
After a year where the school fielded its first competitive robotics team, the school is now offering robotics as an option class to students for next school year and is waiting to see how many students decide to sign up before putting it on the schedule concretely, but if the way students took to it this year as an after-school activity, it wouldn't be a surprise to see a robotics class on the Riverdale class schedule next year.
"I loved watching them work," said Riverdale science and physics teacher Doug Collins. "Sometimes as a teacher, you see kids engaged at 20, 30, or 40 per cent, and you sort of have to content yourself with that. With the kids who signed up for robotics, they were 100-per-cent into it – and were consumed by the challenge," he said.
The 12 students who made up the school's robotics team caught the robotics bug quickly, Collins said. Practices and meetings were held twice weekly after school and helped the team develop a sense of teamwork and practical problem-solving techniques.
"They had to work together to plan solutions to technological problems, like "how do get the robot to pick up the ball?' and that involves a heck of a lot of problem-solving, creativity and intelligence. The solved problems in a flash, and came up with new devices to make the robot move more quickly," he said.
At a recent CRC robotics competition -- the non-profit agency oversees the annual competitions and rules – the Riverdale contingent sat in ninth place (out of 29 competitors), but had some problems on the third day of competition and fell out of the top 10. Still, Collins said, the fuse had been lit among his students.
"All they could talk about was next year," he said.
The Riverdale students agreed.
"It was something different to try," said Grade 10 student Tommy Beaulieu-Frisella, who said the highlight of the year came when the team's preparation culminated at the CRC competition.
"Seeing the robot on the field doing what it was designed to do, definitely," said the Pierrefonds resident. "That gave me a real sense of accomplishment. It felt great," he said.
For next season, Collins said, the team hopes to convert more of their work space into a proper robotics workshop through fundraising programs. The group already received a $2,400 grant from the Pearson Education Foundation, but Collins – and his school's administrative team – have big plans for the school's robotics program.
"Our goal for the next three months is to build a proper robotics workshop. We'd like to add a drill press, a lathe, a welding apparatus and a device for cutting and bending metal," he said, the group having brainstormed fundraising ideas for next year at its post-mortem meeting last Friday. "We've had the full support of administration. If we hadn't gotten the grant from the PEF (which paid for the team's entry into the CRC competition), (Riverdale principal) Roger (Rampersand) was prepared to pay it for us," he said.
Other West Island schools that participated in the competition, which was held over three days late last month at Laval Liberty High School, include, Macdonald High School, Pierrefonds Comprehensive High School, which grabbed the 'Never Say Die' trophy, given to the team that refuses to give up, and West Island College.
Macdonald High School robotics volunteer and school technician Al Dornan said robotics fever has been tough to cure at the Ste. Anne de Bellevue school.
"(The robotics bug) expands exponentially. I don’t know why," he said. "The kids just eat it up," said Dornan, who has been advising Mac students on robotics since 2005 and who lent Collins and the fledgling Riverdale team his expertise one day a week all through the school year.
"The bigger it gets, the more students want to be involved," he said. Fifty students took part in the Mac robotics team this year – "the biggest year," Dornan said, adding that kids sometimes call him in the middle of summer to open the school and allow them access to the robotics lab to work on their upcoming projects.
"They treat it like their own home," he said. "It's great."