Skip to content

Robots take to the ice at North Vancouver's Shipyards ice rink

Students from North Van tech program Zen Maker Lab let their creations loose at a community event March 9

It would have made for an odd sight for anyone who happened to be wandering the Shipyards’ District a few Saturdays back: A throng of children, shouting and clapping, and a collective of small, vibrant robots, gliding across the Shipyards’ skating rink.

The young inventors were students of Zen Maker Lab, a North Vancouver facility that offers STEM education programs combining science, technology, engineering and math. The machines drifting across the ice were the fruits of their labour - robots in all shapes and sizes.

“It was an event put together to inspire and empower kids on the North Shore and beyond to try robotics at a young age,” said Cyri Jones, president of Zen Maker Lab. “It was a celebratory event, a chance for everyone to see what all the different age groups had been up to and to show the progression made from the early introductory robots all the way up to the university level, super advanced robots.”

Across the past few months in the Zen Maker Academy, more than 100 students ranging from Grade 2 to Grade 7 had been learning about electronics, engineering and coding while building the skating robots, said Jones.

Students in Grades 8 and 9, after learning industry 3D design tool Fusion360 during the program, put their newfound skills to the test to create Vex designs. The clawbots are usually the first type of robot to be mastered, before students move on to more challenging projects.

A team comprising Grade 10 to 12 students showed what was possible if the younger students stuck with the program, taking an advanced, Frisbee-throwing robot to the ice. The team had just returned from competing in the First Robotics regional finals in Victoria, competing against robotics teams from across Canada and the US, as well as Brazil and China.

“Some of those kids that were on the Grade 12 team started with us when they were around eight years old, and so I’ve witnessed them making that whole progression,” said Jones. “That’s one of the most rewarding parts of the program, just to see how far they have come over the years.”

Sasha Selby, whose son, Jack, had his own robot take to the ice, said the event is equally as rewarding for the parents of the students involved.

“We’re very proud, he’s so talented,” she said, adding how Zen Maker Lab encourages children who have particular talents in science and math, or more niche hobbies like robotics and engineering.

“He loves taking things apart and putting them together and figuring out how they work, so putting him into this event was excellent for him, in the sense that he could really deep dive into that,” she said. “Through this program he’s met a lot of people that have the same interests as him, which you don’t always find in a normal class setting. He’s made some friends and he’s gotten a lot of encouragement to follow his passion for coding and gaming.”

For Jack himself, a 12-year-old student from Queen Mary Community Elementary, the experience was fun and educational, if not a little bit humbling.

“I learned that coding robots really isn’t that easy, it’s a lot more work than I expected,” he said, adding how coding each leg had taken him around three days.

Jones said the programs help harness life skills like teamwork, patience and hard work, alongside the more science-focused skills.

“There’s a lot of trial and error when you’re doing this kind of thing," he said. "The students learned that it’s important to try to design something and sketch it and everything before you build it and assemble it. And that it is OK if it doesn’t work the first time around, it can take multiple iterations before it actually works." 

At the event at the Shipyards eagle-eyed hockey fans will have spotted Norm Beaudin, the former Winnipeg Jets, Minnesota North Stars, and St. Louis Blues player. The sportsman, who has the distinction of being the first player signed by the Jets in the WHA in 1972, was out on the ice alongside the robots, on-hand to sign autographs from the students.

To those that missed the skating extravaganza, Jones recommends the tech-interested keep their eyes peeled for an event in June. There won’t be skating robots, but the event will be showcasing Zen Maker Lab’s next project: remote controlled boats, set to be raced from the Shipyards dock.

Mina Kerr-Lazenby is the North Shore News’ Indigenous and civic affairs reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

MKerrLazenby@nsnews.com
twitter.com/MinaKerrLazenby