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Danger, Will Robinson

Danger, Will Robinson
Bob Bowman

My love of science and science fiction likely began in elementary school when I read the book The Runaway Robot by Lester Del Rey.  I was a reluctant reader at a young age, but this book had everything: friendship, loyalty and adventure, and the protagonist's best friend was a robot named Rex!  My recollection of their exploits are a little fuzzy, but I remember cherishing this book and not wanting to return it to the library.  Clearly, I was not alone in my adoration of automata; throughout my life, robots have become commonplace in books, television, film and real life.  In fact, robots are currently enjoying the world of dance (click here for a wonderful video by Boston Dynamics, an innovative robotics company).

At Wardlaw+Hartridge, we have very strong STEM programs in all three divisions that prepare our students in the field of robotics (and so much more). It begins with coding opportunities in the Lower School that have led to many of our students joining the Middle School Robotics yearlong elective.  This class, offered by Middle School teacher Ms. Noreen Jafri, has had years of success competing in Botball against mostly high school teams.  Students construct and program robots built on a Roomba platform (that's right - the automated vacuum cleaner!) to perform as many challenging tasks as possible in a predetermined time.  I have had the privilege of attending the regional competition in Rahway on several occasions, and it is a blast.  The excitement and energy are contagious.  The part that is most impressive to me is that during the competition, only students are allowed in any part of the preparation and competition areas.  The last-minute programming tweaks, repairs and final adjustments are done by students without any adult consultation.  Ms. Jafri has our Middle School students prepared, and they shine throughout, regardless of the final results.

In the Upper School, we have recently worked to build on the momentum created in the younger two divisions.  In 2022-23, we hired Mr. Tony Diaz to teach a series of programming courses culminating in both AP Computer Science A and AP Computer Science Principles.  With the coding expertise in place, we now were in need of a robotics coach.  Alas, my love of robotics does not extend to the skills necessary to help our students build robots from scratch.  Realizing our need for assistance, this past summer, Science Department Chair and Middle School teacher Ms. Andrea Barnett took the initiative.  She successfully applied for a STEM grant from the NJ DOE and was able to secure funding to hire an outside teacher to instruct our Upper School students interested in joining the fledgling team.  Ms. Barnett hit it out of the park with her hire of Mr. Michael Ambrose, one of the top United States organizers of RoboCupJunior.  Mr. Ambrose has been an amazing coach and colleague since his arrival at the start of the school year.

RoboCupJunior is a two-on-two autonomous (no remote controls) game of soccer.  The robots need to move independently, and follow and manipulate an orange golf ball into the opposing team's goal.  This competition is a huge construction and programming challenge as there are no parts lists or kits involved, and the robot has to respond quickly enough, in real time, to the motion of the "soccer ball" and the other robots.  We have had about 10 students staying after school on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 4-6 p.m. and working on occasional Saturdays.  It is so rewarding to watch students who started with little to no electronics experience build and troubleshoot complex circuitry involving motion and visual sensors.  The students are so excited about their efforts that they have successfully petitioned to start a Robotics Club beginning the second trimester that will meet during the school day.  They plan to share their newfound understanding of robotics with other students and possibly recruit them to join the team.  The regional RoboCupJunior competition is not until the spring, but we are off to a tremendous start.

While my role in the Upper School robotics program is more mascot than mentor, I am proud to be a small part of this group.  And maybe, just maybe, our robotics students will build me my very own robot best friend like Rex.  One can always dream...