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North Shore robotics programs are producing world champions (video)

The popularity of school robotics programs has skyrocketed, as students learn valuable technical skills while having a blast building bots 🤖

What are full of gadgets and gizmos, keep a growing number of kids engaged in after-school programs and teach them a host of valuable skills in STEM fields?

Robotics programs for North Shore students.

As a result of these fun and functional offerings, several hometown teams made it to this year’s Vex Robotics World Championships in Dallas, Texas, in May.

Of the over 3,000 teams from 36 nations around the globe, one pair of West Van girls took home the grand prize, while a team of Grade 9s from the district took home third place in a middle-schools skills challenge.

Gloria Collins and Annie Zhang, both Grade 6 students at Ridgeview Elementary, were crowned world champions after their perfect-score performance.

It was their first flawless run all year, and it happened in front of 12,000 people. But one team tied them, which led to a faceoff that West Vancouver Schools Mechatronics founder Todd Ablett called one of the most dramatic finishes in 20 years of watching the event.

“It was crazy,” Zhang said, recalling the roar in the arena.

“It was really, really loud,” explained Collins. “But I had a hat, so I just put it down so I couldn’t see anybody.”

At one point during their match, the entire crowd lit up after being told to turn on their cellphone lights. But the girls were in the zone. “We didn’t even notice,” Zhang said.

Their ability to execute on game-day came from hundreds of hours of practice.

The game they and their competitors played is called “Pitching In,” where participants are rewarded when their robot picks up, shoots and scores up to 22 balls. They get more points for scoring in a higher goal, and if their robot does a pull-up off the ground to finish. The Ridgeview team practised the game over 500 times before the tournament.

They also built, programmed and refined their hoops-shooting bot numerous times along the way. So besides the obvious advantages that come from learning programming and applied critical thinking, how do robotics set these students up for future success?

An obvious path is someone like Katie How, a West Van grad who’s now on the Glitch Battlebots team for the combat robotics program at UC Berkeley. They’ve also had kids go on to the mechatronics and robotics engineering program at Queen’s University.

Teacher Ablett also mentioned another student who recently went to the University of Toronto on a business scholarship.

He asked her: Why take robotics and not another accounting or math course?

She replied: What industry won’t be affected by robotics and automation over the next 20 years?

“Which made me feel silly, and I really knew at that point she was a smart kid,” Ablett said.

Popularity of programs has skyrocketed in recent years

In 2015, teaching competitive robotics started in West Van as a club with 11 students. In 2016, the Mechatronics Academy was launched with 40 students in grades 9 through 12. As of September, robotics programs in the district have 275 students as young as Grade 3.

As younger students watched their older siblings build and compete with robots, West Van school district's director of instruction Diane Nelson kept getting requests to expand the programming.

Because of the applied nature of the learning, it doesn’t feel like work. “What they're doing is they're having fun learning this – it's a game,” she said.

But the extracurricular schooling – requiring dedicated staff, facilities and equipment – comes at a cost. To enrol their kid, West Van parents have to pay $2,750 per year.

And in North Vancouver, the first school-based robotics program is just getting started at Carson Graham Secondary. Previously, the only option for students there was a private after-school club started by parents.

Rene Cravioto, a parent of a kid from Mt. Seymour Robotics who also competed at the VEX championship, says he wants to see this kind of programming made more accessible.

“A lot of families’ budget is already limited,” he said. “How can you afford to send your kids many years in a row to a program like this?”

Cravioto said it’s a missed opportunity to have so few students access great experiences like this.

For parents interested in extracurricular programs who have difficulty with cost, Nelson said the school district has a hardship fund.

“We work with individual families on this because it is a sensitive item,” she said. “They usually call me and let me know the situation, and then we work together to make things happen.”

“No child is ever left behind.”

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