While the existence of robots still seems like science fiction for many parents, today’s students are actively programming and working with them in anticipation of entering an increasingly technology-oriented workplace. Recently, 6 teams from Pinkerton Academy VEX Robotics program tried their hand at designing and programming a robot at Pembroke Academy’s Winter Classic Robotics Competition on Saturday December 3rd.

“Five teams made it to the quarterfinals round and two to the semifinals,” noted Engineering Instructor, and VEX Robotics Advisor Ernie Biron.

Team 241A, however, distinguished itself even further by winning the Design Award for their robot and documentation, which qualifies them for the Regional Finals in February at Manchester Community College.

For Biron, VEX Robotics is unique in its ability to provide a hands-on way for students to learn STEM and how to problem-solve, while also recognizing “the technological wonders around them.” “It shows them how they can become a part of changing the future of technology,” he added.

According to the students themselves, their participation in the program stems from a tangible desire to prepare for this future. “I like [the program] because it gives you a real world outlet,” said Alex Mielens, captain of Team 241A. “We are all thinking ahead—we want to be engineers.”

Fellow participant Nathan Stallings agreed and added, “I personally joined because I want to be a robotic engineer. I want to expand my education and understand how robots work.”

Biron said he is particularly impressed at how the program also demands that students rigorously document their work.

“Students need to keep a running record of how they came up with the design, issues, flaws, corrections, and the engineering and STEM principles used in completing their robots,” he said. “Teams cannot be considered for Design or Excellence awards unless they have a really good document package.”

In addition to learning how to build a robot that meets a specific challenge, the students themselves noted the program also helps build other skills, including team work. Citing ten students on Team 241A, Senior Mike Estes said it can definitely be a challenge to keep everyone involved in the project.

“It’s hard to give work to everybody,” he said. “Everybody is at different grade levels, too—some are freshmen, others are seniors. We run into issues, but work through them.”

Jessica Lacey, a first-year participant in the program, said working in a group has been “an interesting experience.” She said she has been surprised, however, at how working in a group has enhanced her understanding of robotics.

“I’ve worked with VEX parts before, but by working in larger groups I’ve learned a lot from bouncing my ideas off other people and other teams,” she said. “It’s been a huge learning curve for me, but very interesting.”

For younger students unsure as to whether to get involved in a robotics program, first-year participant Stasia Sturdivant said she suggests they attend a competition, which is what she did for her own younger sister.

“I got my 5th grade sister interested by bringing her here during meeting nights, showing videos and bringing her to competitions,” she said. “I think it would piqué a lot of students’ interest.”

In addition to watching his teams perform at and excel in various competitions, Biron said he also especially enjoys the fact that the program continues to grow. Citing this as his 4th year instructing VEX Robotics students, he said his program has more than doubled in size from his first year.

“When I first started, we had only about 20 kids with maybe 10 to 14 coming in consistently,” he said. “Now, I get over 50 and have to turn down some as the teams are way too large at times to be fun.

He said his personal goal is to try and expand the program into Derry’s elementary and middle schools.

“I hope to add more teams as funds or costs come down, but that’s hard as I use the same components to teach my engineering classes,” he said. “For now, I’m just enjoying the hard work put in by our current teams who are representing Pinkerton Academy proudly.”

Biron said he also takes pride in the accomplishment of a former student. “One of my past students started a college team at UNH last year,” he added. “It’s exciting to see that, too.”

Photo Credit:
Pinkerton Academy Vex Robotics students
l-r front row – Jessica Lacey, Stasia Sturdivant ( both first year robotics students)
l-r back row – Mike Estes, Alex Mielens, Nate Stallings, Austin Caux (all 3-4 year robotics students)