The board is reminiscent of a super-sized board game, with a variety of pathways and obstacles to navigate. The trick is getting the student made-robot to traverse the course and climb a mini-ramp at the end of this season’s journey. Problem solving is nothing new to the Freebots, the First Lego Robotics Team of Freedom Middle School. Just two years in existence, the team is winning awards for its ability use creativity and resourcefulness to develop everyday solutions. More importantly, these burgeoning engineers are developing skills that will serve them as they prepare for college or career.
“In the future, 60 percent of all jobs will be technology based. Also, minority representation in engineering is five percent or less. If they don’t get these skills now, what are they going to do if 60 percent of the jobs require those skills,” said Carla Kabwatha, coach of the Freebots. “The exposure now is what’s important, the different types of engineering that’s available.”
Founded in 2015, the Freebots were combined from two existing teams at the school. Led by Kabwatha and Assistant Coach Cora Adu, the expectation was set high to ensure genuinely interested and dedicated students filled its ranks. Today, students must apply for a limited number of open spots through a rigorous application process that includes four recommendations, a research paper and a technical reflection.
Students quickly find out research is key. The First Lego Robotics Program requires students to develop products or solutions to complex problems. This is where the Freebots have shined. In 2015, the team won a research award for developing an idea for a 100-percent biodegradable bottle. A year later, the team took home a top honor for robot design. The students have also developed a concept for a smartphone app that helps track bears so humans can avoid them. “When you try to stop an animal from coming near a human, many of them don’t like sounds and it’s easy to keep them away from us,” said Matthew Ivery. “Our app plays those sounds utilizing technology.”
To explore and develop ideas, the Freebots have traveled to nearby knowledge sources such as the Microsoft Innovation Center and the Bear Hollow Wildlife Trail to glean insight into cutting-edge processes and ideas. The students take those gleaned ideas and reflect on them in research papers contained in thick binders to be used during judging at competitions. “We learned that technology is really changing the way we interact with the world,” said Bekam Alemayehu said about the visit to Microsoft.
“We learned that making a website and an app is not as easy as it seems,” said student Staci Mcgee. “I thought you just had to download a program with Xbox and just make a game. (The “Technical Evangelist” aka tour leader) started talking about the back end and the front end and I realized it was more than what I thought.
But the real demonstration of knowledge can be found at that robotics table. As the students set up the robot, a squat collection of Lego parts surrounding a power pack, they are composed and confident. After a couple of technology related hiccups, their award-winning robot breezes through the course while emitting a high-pitched and subdued whirling sound. But again, competing for students is not just about awards for the students. It’s about getting ready for the future. “I like to fix things,” said Isaiah Bryant. “I like to take things apart and put them back together. I want to be a train engineer and it requires engineering skills.”
The Freebots hope to continue to grow their program. If you would like to contribute, please email Coach Kabwatha at firstname.lastname@example.org.