South Carroll students are introduced to engineering while designing and building competition-ready robots during after-school robotics club.
Senior Nicole Suscello wrote Java program code to propel a robot named Tobias with help from other students in robotics club after school on a recent Friday at South Carroll High School, part of a collaborative effort responsible for leading the team to finish first place in a qualifying tournament for a state robotics championship.
"We've been designing the same task since September; it's been a long road to get here," said South Carroll High technology teacher Sean Lee, who serves as faculty adviser for the robotics club. Although three of the club's teams will advance to the Maryland FIRST Tech Challenge Championship at Georgetown Preparatory School on Sunday due to their performance, Lee said he's always encouraging students to step up their game.
"We've been trying to preach to these kids that you can't just sit back and assume that because you did well with this one part of the design that you don't need to worry about improving it because all of the other teams are," said Lee, who earned his bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from Georgia Institute of Technology. "If you stand still, the other teams are going to pass you by."
At this time of year, students at South Carroll are working every day after school, which amounts to at least 10 hours per week, to prepare for competitions.
Last year two teams at South Carroll advanced to the state competition, Lee said. This is the first year they will have three of their teams compete, along with two other teams from Carroll County — neighborhood groups not affiliated with the school system — Team 4991 Gear Freaks from Eldersburg and Team 8221 Cubix from Hampstead. Top placing teams will move on to a regional competition in Pennsylvania.
In its fourth year, there are about 40 students at South Carroll involved in the school's robotics club, according to Lee.
"The club has just exploded; in our first year we started with three guys," Lee said. It all began when a parent inquired about a robotics club on behalf of her son, Lee said, and because Lee had a background in engineering she encouraged him to serve as adviser of the club.
"It just kind of blossomed from there. By the end of the first year we had about eight kids, and then the second year we doubled it to about 15 or so, and last year we were pushing 30," Lee said.
Robotics has risen in popularity among students in Carroll, according to Bryan Shumaker, STEM coordinator for Carroll County Public Schools. Five of Carroll County's public high schools have a robotics-related club, he said.
"It is trickling into middle and elementary school as well... not one club is the same, and there is a variety of competitions," Shumaker said.
Century High School's robotics club began five years ago with one team, and has since grown to five teams, said Century High School science teacher Buck Ferrin, who serves as faculty adviser of the school's robotics club. For the last two years, the school has sent one of its teams to the world championship in the VEX Robotics Competition, Ferrin said.
"It's a really awesome experience for these kids... to have a competitive spirit tapped in their abilities and their interests, which is in STEM and robotics," Ferrin said.
The first robotics club in Carroll County began at Liberty High School at least 10 years ago, which evolved into Partnership and Inspiration for Engineering Education and Entrepreneurship, or PIE3, a non-profit organization founded to support STEM, or Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics education in Carroll and surrounding areas, Shumaker said.
The organization, which provides financial support to the South Carroll teams, was founded by private school teacher Rose Young, who used to teach science at Liberty High School. Private school students and children who are home-schooled are also involved, Young said.
Young said teams often struggle to stay afloat because of the limited funding available through local school systems.
Although some after-school faculty adviser positions provide teachers with a stipend, Shumaker said teachers who provide oversight for robotics clubs don't receive compensation for their time.
"I can foresee a day when we're in a better financial position and every school has a stipended position," Shumaker said.
Students at South Carroll High often hold fundraisers for their club, which has a budget of about $12,000 each year, said Sean's father, Tom Lee, a former engineer who also serves as a mentor of South Carroll's robotics club.
"We raise all the money ourselves. We don't get any money from the county at all," Tom Lee said.
The club plays an important role in supporting students with an interest in engineering or STEM-related fields, he said.
"We're nurturing the engineering concept here at South Carroll. A lot of these kids didn't even know what engineers were — they thought they drove trains," Tom Lee said. "The reason for the club here is to teach kids the principles of engineering — something they can't get from the school system, we give them after school."
As the club has grown, Sean Lee said he has been more hands-off, allowing students to run the club themselves. He and his father provide mentorship and guidance, he said. Sean Lee said he wants to give his students the liberty to experiment and fail to figure things out for themselves.
"If you ask any of the kids, they'll tell you, you have to learn by failure. They've definitely learned that and it's worked, and it helps in the competitions," he said.
Junior Michael Shockey joined the club three years ago in the off-season, and teaches other less-experienced students about robotics and how to build things, he said.
"When I started I had no idea what I was getting into. Now, I can pre-design a little bit, I can program a little bit and I can build really good robots that are pretty consistent at competitions," said Shockey, who plans to pursue a career in mechanical engineering.