NEWARK — The robotics class at Cedar Ridge High School is in its third year, and the class conveys itself as a melting pot for students in the district.
The program is headed by teachers Judy Butler and Gary Ford.
Each year, the team participates in the building of a robot and goes to a district competition in Little Rock. The competition is sponsored by FIRST Robotics.
“When you walk into [the competition in] Little Rock, our team is unique,” Butler said. “I’ve been a card-carrying member of the nerd herd all my life. I love being a nerd, but this thing filled a niche at our school that we really needed.
“We have agri boys. We have pretty girls. We have the athletes. We have a lot of special-education kids. They work elbow to elbow together. It was such a wonderful dynamic from the first year on. Our team is different. We have more diversity. We didn’t realize it until we got down to the competition.”
Ford said there’s about a 60-40 ratio of males to females on the team.
“We wanted them involved,” Ford said. “Some of the females this year, it was the first time they had used a drill or a saw.”
Butler said that after the competitions the first year, she asked the students what they liked best about participating in robotics. And she said it was almost unanimous.
“They all said, ‘We got to learn about our peers,’” she said. “‘We would have never gotten to hang out with them.’ That trend has continued. They’ve made sure that it has kept going. When you go down to Little Rock, there are a lot of ‘nerds,’ and I say that lovingly because I am one. You don’t see teams like ours.”
Senior Jake Butler echoed his mother’s sentiments.
“Two years ago, one of the key people on our team was in special education,” he said. “He was there every day helping us. I would have never spoken a word to him if he hadn’t been in here.
“This class really mixed all different genres of people. We all mix here. This is just a common place where we can come and get along and have one common goal.”
Senior Katlyn Reilly said she didn’t talk to half the students in the class before joining.
“Now, you see us in here together, and we all get along,” Reilly said. “Mentoring the junior high kids in this class is also a lot of fun.”
A year ago, the Cedar Ridge robotics class had 110 students with 75 actively participating. The class meets after school.
“They go to school all day,” Judy Butler said. “Some of them go to football or go to work, then come back at 6 o’clock and spend at least an hour, sometimes two, with engineers for the computer-aided design and the programming on their own time.
“They aren’t getting any credit for it. They just wanted to do better. They want to contribute more. They’ve bought into what we’re trying to do. We tell them, ‘You’re making yourself more marketable when you get older and have these skills.’”
Each robotics team has a marketing plan, a design plan and a computer programming plan, the teachers said.
With FIRST, there is a reveal challenge each year that tells participants what the task is that their robot is to complete. This coming year’s reveal will be Jan. 7.
From there, teams have six weeks to build their robot. When the six weeks are up, the robot is bagged up and sealed and not to be opened until the regional competition. Last year’s regional was three weeks after the robot was bagged.
“They give you a completely different challenge every year,” Butler said. “They’ve released a teaser video on YouTube, and we get an idea what it might be. We won’t know until Jan. 7. Everybody will find out what the robot has to accomplish.
“You get a kit at the reveal. It’s simply the chassis with the tires.”
Last year, the robot that students built had to pull in a ball the size of a volleyball and shoot it like a catapult through an upper and lower goal. Two years ago, the robot had to stack crates and move them onto a platform.
After the regional competition, teams advance to the world championships, which were held in St. Louis, Missouri, last year. Ford said 49 teams competed in regionals last year; 72 two years ago; and 600 competed in the world championships.
“There were teams from Taiwan, Japan, Mexico, China, England, France, Australia, South America and from all over the United States,” Ford said.
Another aspect of the robotics team that students learn is business practices.
Butler said the students have also learned how to write a grant in order to fund the robots. The program was started by an original grant from FIRST two years ago.
“That got us started,” she said. “We have learned to be very proficient grant writers.”
In order to raise more funds, Butler said, she told the students that just calling businesses and asking for money wasn’t the way to do this.
“We said, ‘We think you should put together a PowerPoint with the marketing and build team,’” Butler said. “‘We’re going to take you around to these different businesses, banks and corporations, and we want you to do a presentation on what our team is, what we stand for and what it means to you as a student.’
“That is helping them get out in front of people. It was helping us bridge the gap between them and the businesses,” Ford said. “We made most of the appointments for them.”
In fact, several of the students demonstrated their robot from last year and gave a presentation to a business Monday morning.
“We just sat back and let them do everything,” Butler said. “We’ll take another day or two and do presentations.”
Jake Butler is using this to his advantage.
“Going out and talking to the businesses is one of my favorite things ever,” he said. “I’ve met people who are really high up in businesses that I would have never gotten to know. I’ve talked to CEOs. It’s just something you don’t get to do unless you are part of this program.”
Even though the students won’t know what this year’s robot will be, Judy Butler said, the class is progressing.
“We’re already started,” she said. “You can’t build a robot and teach the skill sets they need to build a robot at the same time. We’re working in the fall semesters with engineers to learn the skills they need so that the mentors who help can step back and let the kids take the forefront like we really want them to do.
“The kids are getting to where they can take charge and lead the building. That is what we’ve done our fall semester. I feel like we are in better shape than we’ve ever been. Our kids have worked so hard.”
Several of the students shared their thoughts about the robotics class.
Junior Kailseigh Barnes said everything about the robotics competition has a certain vibe.
“It’s really hard to put into words,” she said, “but I’ve never felt that type of energy or atmosphere before. It is totally new [and something] I would never have been able to experience without this competition.”
Senior Gregory Fitzgerald was a dean’s list finalist and went to the world championship last year.
“We were the probably the only team in the world being a second-year team to have a finalist,” Ford said.
Fitzgerald said that honor was “pretty awesome.”
“I don’t know why I really got it,” he said. “I like the helping part of [robotics]. There’s a good mentality with it. It’s like football. It’s a brotherhood. Nobody stands alone. We help them out. If somebody is having trouble, they ask questions. Somebody will stop what they are doing and go help them. The building process helps with the mechanical comprehension. It helped me out so much. I know a lot more than what I used to.”
Junior Aaron Merrill said the robotics class has given him a mindset of what he wants to do after high school.
“I want to be an electrical engineer,” Merrill said. “This class has opened up more avenues for me.”
Junior Lindsay Hackworth said participating in the class is for everyone.
“You can weld or be on the marketing team, or do programming,” she said. “There are so many different areas that someone who wants to do it can participate without knowing how to build a robot. You can learn different skills.”
Staff writer Mark Buffalo can be reached at (501) 399-3676 or email@example.com.