Robots open teachers' eyes

During the first-ever robotics academy at Glendale Community College, nearly 30 teens built and programmed robots from scratch in less than two weeks to compete against each on Thursday.

The four-wheeled robots maneuvered around a small white playing field to grasp one ball at a time with their claws. They were controlled by students who set out to score points by dropping the balls in goals that were in the center and corners of the field.

Not all of the freshmen and sophomores from Glendale, Burbank and Los Angeles high schools came with robot experience under their belts, but that wasn't a requirement. Neither was it mandated for the six teachers from the three districts who participated.

After the experience, Glendale High teachers Bryan Lowe and Chet Marcheque said they hoped to establish a robotics program at GHS that may start as an after-school club.

"It's been an eye-opening experience for me, seeing what goes on here," Lowe said. "This is something our kids can really get behind."

Clark Magnet and Crescenta Valley high schools offer robotics, which led Glendale Community College to do the same when students who graduated from those schools a few years ago began asking about robotics at the college level.

Math professor Tom Voden oversaw the program's establishment in 2010. Over breakfast last October, Voden and Clark Magnet Principal Doug Dall came up with the idea to host an academy at the college paid for by grant funds so it would be free to local kids.

"We wanted to be able to affect the greatest number of students, but we also wanted to bring the teachers here because without the teachers, it doesn't matter how many motivated students there are," Dall said.

Dustin Mathias, a geometry teacher at Burroughs High, participated in the program to gain a more hands-on approach to teaching, "instead of just standing in front of the class, talking," he said.

Even as some teens tend to be shy and withdrawn, Voden said programming and designing robots draws students out of their shells as they work with each other.

"They engage so much differently than in a lecture because of the experience," he said.

Clark Magnet freshman Daniel Torres worked with classmate Bhavin Shah and Hoover High freshman Ryan Sawitskas to build a robot that competed in the ball-dropping contest.

The team drafted five different designs before settling on the final one and building it in three days.

"I liked that we actually built it ourselves, and it was our design instead of what they told us to do," Torres said.


Follow Kelly Corrigan on Twitter: @kellymcorrigan.

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