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EYE ON EDUCATION: Lake Placid students powering up for a robotics challenge

February 16, 2018
By GRIFFIN KELLY - Staff Writer ( , Lake Placid News

LAKE PLACID - The shop class at the Lake Placid Middle/High School looks like most high school tech rooms.

There are band saws for cutting, a drill press for drilling and a lathe for shaving down metal and wood. Some sawdust is scattered about the floor while a few hammers, clamps, saws and other hand tools hang from a wall at the back of the room. There's also a few less traditional machines - a computer numerical control router, a laser cutter, and on top of one of the workbenches, a large robot in the midst of being built.

Tim Kelleher and Jasmine Zhang, two members of the school's robotics club, scanned the robot's metal frames, deciding how to best install the its guts - wires, circuit boards and routers. In a week and a half, the robot has to be a capable of moving on its own, lifting objects and pulling itself upward.

Article Photos

From left, Lake Placid High School teacher Brian LaVallee and students Jasmine Zhang and Tim Kelleher pose with a robot they previously built that was donated to the LPHS robotics club by Northwood School.
(News photo — Griffon Kelly)

The robotics club - advised by teachers Brian LaVallee, Tammy Casey and Olaf Carlson - will participate in the FIRST Robotics Competition at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy next month. The theme this year is "Power Up," so everything is supposed to resemble a retro arcade game.

It's kind of like a 21st century pine wood derby competition. The club was sent two FedEx crates filled with tools and pieces and had six weeks to build a robot. The teams are allowed to modify their robots to an extent as long as it doesn't cost more than $4,000.

The club's robot has mecanum wheels, meaning it can move in any direction. Imagine parallel parking a car, but instead of pulling forward and backing into the spot, the car can just slide right in horizontally. These wheels only really appear on robots, forklifts and a few high-priced wheelchairs.

The object of the FRC is to use robots to place boxes, or power cubes, onto specific mechanisms. At each end of the arena is a switch that can be weighed down. In the middle of the arena, there is a balance scale that can also be weighed down. The more power cubes placed on these mechanisms, the more points the students will score. At the end of a round, robots must be able to lift themselves off the ground and climb the balance scale.

For the first 15 seconds, the robots are required to move by themselves autonomously, which is made capable by a prewritten piece of code. After that, the teams use remote controls the steer the robots and pick up the power cubes. The remote the Lake Placid club uses is an off-brand Xbox controller.

"Our gamers are probably best suited for that part," LaVallee said.

Ever since typewriters were invented, a key skill schools began teaching was typing. They tried to sway students toward the home row method and away from the hunt-and-peck style. This was an essential skill when entering the workforce up there with basic math, critical thinking and reading comprehension. Today, with technology advancing rapidly and jobs being created every day, a new skill has entered that list of essentials - computer coding.

"If a student is going into engineering, they're going to need to know coding," LaVallee said. "Coding is everywhere now."

Kelleher said he likes working with robotics because it takes many elements like coding, engineering, designing and working with his hands to create the best machine.

"Combining all these different areas and being able to put it all together, it's not something you do in many classes," Kelleher said.

LaVallee said the core high school classes can get a little stressful, but when kids enter the shop class, they can just take a breath and tinker around with stuff.

With about five core members, the Lake Placid robotics club is rather small when compared to other teams.

"Some of these bigger schools have 50-person teams," Kelleher said.

"And a few of these schools have classes - one- to two-hour classes - dedicated to robotics," LaVallee added.

The larger teams tend to have specific jobs for the students. One group might take care of coding while another is responsible for physically building the robot. In their small team, everybody has a hand in every piece of the robot.

"It's a challenge trying to do everything with a small group," Kelleher said.

Zhang wants to pursue education in engineering and robotics. She's applied to many tech focused colleges such as RPI, Boston University and SUNY Binghamton. Kelleher wants to pursue computer science and environmental science and thinks that the robotics club provides students with solid tools as they enter their college careers.

"It gives us a good base knowledge," Kelleher said, "and now we have that little bit of an edge."

The robot and all the work that goes into building one falls under the category of STEM - science, technology, engineering and mathematics. There's also an artistic element to many of the project now and some refer to the acronym as STEAM.

"I wouldn't say were a STEM school," LaVallee said, "but I think we're heading down that road."

When a student builds a robot that can actually function or cuts a piece of wood properly or solves a problem correctly, LaVallee said that's the carrot that keeps them coming back for more.

"When all that labor comes to fruition," LaVallee said, "it's a really good feeling."

With technology and tools advancing at a rate unprecedented in human history, LaVallee said the core lesson students should learn in school is problem solving. There's a scene from the movie "Apollo 13" he likes to show his classes, where the astronauts and ground control engineer need to make a new air filtration device using a random assortment of tools and objects found on the spacecraft.

"The world is becoming so much more automated, but nobody knows how to use anything," LaVallee said. "We want students to become problems solvers, and not to just pick up a phone and call someone when their refrigerator isn't working properly."



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