WESTBROOK — At 8:30 a.m. on a Friday morning, seventeen teenagers huddled around lab tables in the back of a science classroom trying to prompt a half-dozen crablike blinking robots to wake up and move their legs.
Screws and plastic robotic legs are scattered across the table, along with a stray Dunkin Donuts bag and a bottle of Coke. Laptops are open to tutorial videos for robot-building (and the occasional soccer game being watched on the sly). Blue boxes filled with robot parts, user manuals and makeshift cardboard stands are labeled with group names. The Martian Manhunters. The Flying Crab.
The class is part of Westbrook’s new robotics program, and the teens are working to calibrate their robots — legs all in the right position — so that they can stand on their own and — with the right programming — walk around the table.
The robots are hexapods — six-legged bots that resemble crabs with legs tangled in colorful seaweed at the beach. Once turned on they flash blue, red and green through a translucent upper shell, depending on their current mode.
Brian Dailey, the instructor, describes class as “structured, but unstructured.” He said he was heartened by the enthusiasm shown by the teens.
“It’s really nice, they are genuinely excited, interested,” he said.
Dailey said the course combines engineering and computer science. The students learn fundamentals of engineering, basic coding and C ++, as well as some 3-D modeling. Even more importantly, Dailey said, they learn how to work in teams.
“A lot of times, different groups will help each other out,” he said. “It’s like a real, genuine, organic cooperation.”
Several students said they liked the hands-on nature of the class.
“We don’t do that in a lot of our classes,” said Niraj Odedra, a senior who said he was interested in computer science and technology.
Karl Schilling, a freshman, said he switched out of computer science and into robotics because he “didn’t want to do more coding.” He said robotics was a chance to try something new.
“It’s current. It’ll help me in the future,” he said.
The future of industry
Leslie Carson, a college and career readiness coordinator for Westbrook Public Schools, said the district decided to offer robotics at the suggestion of local manufacturers, including the Lee Company, Alta Vision Systems and Bausch Advanced Technologies. Carson said that Lee told her that robotics was the direction that advanced manufacturing was headed toward.
“We went to industry and said, ‘What do we need?’ And we listened very closely,” said Carson.
While nearby Clinton has a series of courses for students interested in manufacturing, Carson said that Westbrook’s small size meant that the district needed to take a different approach.
The new Westbrook program includes two courses in robotics at the middle school level, and three at the high school. The middle school classes will focus on Vex Robotics — robots designed for educational settings — and the programming language Python.
Dailey’s class — Automatic Systems I — is being piloted this fall, followed by its counterpart, Robotics and Automatic Systems II, in the spring. A third course, Basic Robotics and Design Thinking, will be offered at the high school next year.
Carson said that Dailey’s name came up multiple times when they were deciding who would teach the course.
“He’s kind of an innovative teacher to begin with,” she said.
Dailey has been teaching in Westbrook schools for 17 years, but he’s actually fairly new to science courses. After more than a decade teaching U.S. History, Dailey decided three years ago to take coursework to be certified in science. He now teaches AP U.S. History, freshman science and the robotics course.
“I’ve always liked to tinker, was into old cars and stuff,” said Dailey. “So it sounded like a good fit.”
The class uses a program designed by MilestoneC, a Connecticut-based company that creates curricula for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) courses in partnership with STEMI, a Croatia-based corporation that designed the robot. Dailey said MilestoneC helps with troubleshooting any problems that surface. Otherwise, he said, it’s a lot of “figure it out.”
The ultimate goal of the course is to create a “Mars Rover” — a robotic arm attached to another robot that can be programmed to move around and eventually “scoop dirt” the way that a robot sent to Mars might take a soil sample to bring back to Earth for analysis.
Step one is to build a walking robot, the crab-like hexapod with the flashing LED lights. The students then have to design a mobile app to program the robot. Finally, toward the end of the course, they’ll be able to design and attach the robotic arm.
Back in the classroom, the students are challenged to calibrate the legs to move in tandem.
The robots, however, seem to have little interest in cooperating. Problem number one — the robots won’t hold a charge. The students plug the bots into their computers and wait for them to come to life.
Shilling said his group was doing well until the battery died.
“We got it fully moving … and then it just ran out of juice,” he said.
Dailey circled the room checking in on the groups.
“Is your battery charged? At all? No?”
One student shows Dailey a leg that has begun twitching spasmodically.
Dailey looked at it, perplexed, then headed back toward his desk.
“I don’t know what to do about that leg,” Dailey said as he typed a description of the problem into a Slack channel for MilestoneC Tech Support.
Dailey said the rhythm of the class fluctuates between progress and plateau.
Toward the end of the class, Dailey stopped by another table. “That’s a good sign,” he said, nodding at the robot. The student sighed with relief. “Hang in there, buddy.”
Trial and error
As the course is established, Dailey said one of his goals is to get more students interested — in particular, female students. While the class includes teens from all different grade levels and with a variety of skill sets, there’s not a single girl enrolled in the course.
Carson said attracting more female students into the robotics course was a priority for her as well. She said there are a lot of girls at the school who want to become engineers, but that most of them were taking AP Science courses.
“When I saw the enrollment, I said, okay, we haven’t done enough career preparation yet. We know we need to do better,” she said.
Ultimately, Dailey said, he also hopes to start a competitive robotics team, using the new course as a foundation. Carson said she saw the robotics team as having the potential to get more female students involved.
As for the Mars Rover — Dailey said he’s not sure if they’ll get to the robotic arm this semester, or if that will be a project for Automated Robotics II in the spring. For the groups that finish building the hexapod more quickly, he said, he’s thinking about having them set up a maze, in order to get the hang of operating the crab.
By the end of the period, the robots are still a work-in-progress — but some students aren’t ready to give up. One group approaches Dailey to ask if they can take the hexapod to the library and work on it during free period. Dailey agrees enthusiastically.
Odedra, the senior interested in computer science, said that while the build can be frustrating, the ultimate result is worth it.
“It’s frustrating at times, but after you keep trying, keep failing, you figure it out,” he said.
Editor’s note: The original version of this story incorrectly referred to the Lee Company and Alta Vision Systems. This story has been corrected.