Bentley students ready for international robotics competition
By Lou Fancher
Teamwork and problem-solving have propelled the Bentley Upper School student robotics team to a world competition this weekend, according to science teacher Julie Spector-Sprague.
At the Lafayette private school, eight students on the Phoenix Electronics team used the winning formula April 30 to score second place overall in Marine Advanced Technology Education’s 2017 Regional underwater robotics competition.
Their 15-minute ROV (remotely operated vehicle) demonstration earned an opportunity for the team to be among 31 teams from Turkey, Egypt, Hong Kong, Puerto Rico, Scotland, Canada, the Bahamas and other American cities at the 2017 MATE International ROV Competition in Long Beach.
The competition June 23-25 has students displaying STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) knowledge and skills while operating robots they have designed and built that perform underwater tasks aimed at solving real world problems.
“Big technology and engineering problems that we face today require a lot of people to solve,” said Spector-Sprague. “We’re way past the one-genius-solving-an-equation stage. When it comes to electronics, students are fearless, adventurous, joyous. They get things up and running, fast. They compromise, convince, manage each other and their time.”
Meeting on Saturdays and after school since November, team members also submerged electronics in water, placing onboard cameras and control systems on the robot.
“Usually those are above water,” said Spector-Sprague. “They had to learn whole systems. They were excited by the ‘overall-ness.’ It’s not just a robot that turns a handle. It’s turn a handle, open a door, climb, pivot. The coding structures needed are complex.”
Spector-Sprague said the program teaches lessons that can’t be packaged into 60-minute classroom sessions. The hands-on, student-led activities are multi-faceted. The possible applications — cleaning up oil spills, excavating shipwrecks — engage students’ imaginations.
“They learn how to find hilarity even during stressful times, coming up with crazy names for parts and things like ‘scuba snake wrangler’ for operators,” she said.
In addition to mastering the use of power tools and better understanding electronic signals and wiring, Celvi Lisy, 16, said she has learned the power of teamwork and real-life problem solving.
“We bonded after a couple of months,” she said. “We were a little family. We had fights, but soon realized there was no point in that. We had to find solutions.” Outside the classroom, she repaired a lamp in her house instead of replacing it. “I know how to fix an outlet that sparks now, too — it’s simple.”
But not all of the challenges have been simple. “At the competition, all of our motors stopped working,” said Keaton Viadro. “We had to forfeit our first run-through time in the pool to work on it.” They modified the tools and maximized their efforts during the competition, scoring in just two minutes more than half the total number of points scored in 15-minutes by the top team. Their tools and designs, Viadro said, were only possible because they work quickly and efficiently as a team.
Connor Tingley, 16, admits that delegating was hard. “I like doing it all and would just want to do it myself. Helping people learn new tasks outside their niche is something I’m still working on.”
Jenya Kirsch-Posner, 16, said working to solve the engineering and design issues not only fixed those problems, but also impacted life choices she is making. “I’m finding I don’t just want to go for easy. I’m taking AP chemistry next year, which is worth it, even if it’s a struggle.”
She dismisses the idea that girls aren’t interested in science. “We are interested and yet, some guys are intense and passionate about science and that made me hesitate. Girls are taught to second-guess themselves. We’re taught not to be cocky, and guys aren’t. When guys are capable, they’re always confident in their abilities.”
Moments later, gathered around their ROV to make modifications and repairs, gender dissolves. They all are scientists, stealing ideas from each other, bent on beating the competition, taking risks to learn.