News from the Field: TFD 215's Rebel Robotics Team Learns Engineering, Programming, Strategy, and More

Last year, the Thornton Fractional High School District 215 21st CCLC program launched a robotics team at its South High School site. Led by instructor Matt Jancich, the team is an offshoot of the afterschool site’s maker space, where many of the participating students had learned to build robots and program microprocessors and had expressed an interest in learning more. To start Rebel Robotics, as the team is known, the 21st CCLC applied for and received a $2,000 grant from First Illinois Robotics to pay for the materials to create and program their robot.

Students on the 12-person team divide their skills among different tasks. Engineers design and build the robot, while programmers use Blockly, an open-source JavaScript library, to code a microprocessor, ensuring that the robot will follow students’ commands. Students have learned skills beyond engineering and programming. One student has learned basic web design and created a website for the team. Others film robotics competitions and other activities and post them to the team’s YouTube channel.

In both practice and competition, the Rebel Robotics team has seen the importance of teamwork and communication. “Communication is very important, because that can make or break the team,” says student Mikala Peden. “Communication has either messed us up or helped us.” During competitions, a student coach communicates guidance to two drivers, who are directing the robot. In one instance when the drivers did not listen to the coach during a competition, the team missed an opportunity to score and lost the competition. Although they were disappointed by the loss, the students regrouped, learned from their experience, and say that they now work much more effectively as a team. Practice sessions have provided opportunities to work on problem solving and perseverance, as the first attempt at a robot does not always yield success. Students often start with a simple cardboard cutout and make multiple prototypes before everything works, a process that student Jacob Fritzche describes as “frustration followed by moments of pure ingenuity.” 

The Rebel Robotics team has learned that it takes more than a good robot to win a competition. “When we first started out, we were just looking at the easy ways to get points,” says Tia Nicholson-Bourn. “Then we expanded [our approach].” The team sets aside time to develop a strategy for an upcoming competition, writing down the different ways to earn points and then deciding where to focus their time and energy. Rebel Robotics remains one of the newer teams in its division, and part of the team’s strategy includes focusing on simple, sometimes overlooked ways to get points. To reinforce this idea, the team has adopted the motto “Keep it simple, silly.” The approach has paid off, as they beat the best team in the division last school year and also won Rookie of the Year. The team finished in 11th place out of 28 teams last year and finished the 2018–19 season in second place out of 27 teams.

Although students build, program, and practice nightly during the school week, in addition to attending Saturday competitions once a month, many work beyond the hours of the 21st CCLC program. They cite the camaraderie and friendship, the satisfaction of making progress, and the opportunity to learn new skills as motivation for participation. The team’s winning record has also been a draw. Some students said that the robotics team is the highlight of their day. “I can’t wait for the bell to ring at 3:30,” remarks one student. Others are making connections to school math and science classes, noting that they now see the relevance of classes like pre-calculus. Still others are also connecting the robotics team to career interests, with more than one student expressing an interest in pursuing postsecondary studies in engineering or computer programming and one senior winning a significant scholarship to study engineering at Lewis University.

When asked what advice they have for other 21st CCLC programs that want to start robotics, the students stress the importance of planning. “Design before you build,” advises one. “Yes, before you cut the plywood, make sure you know what you’re building,” jokes Jancich. Nicholson-Bourn stresses the importance of a positive attitude, “Even if things do get a little messy, sometimes you just have to start over and start from scratch,” she says. “It’s easier to do it the right way than just get mad.” In addition to continuing their winning streak, the afterschool program has plans to add a second team so that more students can participate.