SIDNEY TOWNSHIP — On the surface, the building of small robots in Art Ward’s engineering and technology class looks like an opportunity for students to flaunt the excitement of their inner child.
But buried beneath the assembly of erector pieces, the smiles and laughter that bubble to the surface from students during successful robot demonstrations, are lessons and skills that will guide them into becoming successful future engineers and technicians.
This year, Ward’s students at the Montcalm Area Career Center appear to be having a little more fun in their learning process, thanks to a $913 grant through the Meemic Insurance Company, sponsored by the Kitchenmaster Agency, that supplied the class with erector sets for robot construction.
The sets replace the previous method of purchasing balsa wood and glue and instructing students to develop a robot from scratch.
According to Ward, the new erector sets have made an “incredible” difference in way his students are approaching and completing their robotic assignment this year.
“Previously, I might have had only one or two groups of students who could successfully complete this project, they didn’t know where to start, they didn’t know how to deal with the spacial relations,” he said. “This really helps them to visualize what they want to built, and it’s done a lot more than I originally thought it would. We’re a lot further along right now than we were at this time last year.”
Ward’s goal for his students is to come away from the project with a number of lessons learned, lessons they can one day apply to a job in the “real world.”
“We really want them to be thinking outside of the box, to come up with their own ideas and be problem solvers,” he said. “With balsa wood, the robots looked terrible, like a third-grader got loose with some power tools. These erector sets have helped tremendously.”
The students are assigned to first design their robot on a computer, piece by piece, to see if their ideas would work if they were to physically assemble their robot.
They have two options in attempting to make their robots move, either choose hydraulics (fluid mechanics) or pneumatics (pressurized air).
“It’s speed (pneumatics) versus power (hydraulics), and the students have to choose which methods work best for them,” Ward said. “The whole point here is to see that it’s not always about building it first that works, sometimes you can use knowledge to help you go a little bit faster.”
The students must use their robots to pick up and transport three vials of water, and place them on a remote platform.
The assignment is designed to represent a real-world application of transporting toxic waste barrels from a contaminated site onto the bed of a truck.
Ward said the assignment is not too far off from what is used in manufacturing companies across the world.
“In all of manufacturing, everything is robotic now,” he said. “If you can weld and you can work with a robot, you can make an unlimited amount of money based on the knowledge of robotics. Our entire manufacturing industry is run on robotics.”
Students Nathanael Scott, 17, a senior at Greenville High School, and Naomi Ostrander, 17, a homeschooled senior from Lakeview, partnered together in the hopes of creating a successful robot.
“First we had to design every single piece that was inside the kit,” Scott said. “Then we had to figure out how to put them together on the computer, making sure it would work before building it.”
According to Scott, the pair tried three different designs before finally coming up with one that was practical and efficient enough to complete the task.
“In this class, you get the fundamentals of what goes into designing something, how you would build it, and how you would operate it, so you have all the functions, start to finish, that you need for a job,” he said. “It’s very beneficial, these kits are more solid and we can make our own parts with 3D printing. Using these kits, it’s more practical.”
Ostrander said she hopes the skills she learns at the career center will help prepare her for a long career in design parts later in life.
“I want to become a designer, and I want to be able to know how to do it, how to build it, that’s more important than just being able to draw a design,” she said. “I want to make parts, to make things work.”