Building robots, building futures

Published Wednesday, October 1, 2014

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Bridgeport, Texas, is a long way from Silicon Valley – but a new club at Bridgeport High School is giving students an opportunity to learn about technology and entrepreneurship.

The Bridgeport Robotics Club, led by math teacher Stuart Highlander, will compete in the upcoming Texas Boosting Engineering, Science and Technology (BEST) Robotics tournament in October. The club is currently building a robot for the competition, using materials given to them by the organization.

I Robot

I, ROBOT – Gus White and Kyle Baker make some adjustments to the wheels on the Bridgeport Robotics Club’s robot last week. The robot is designed to evade obstacles put in its place, such as prairie chickens. Messenger Photo by Joe Duty

But they’re not just building robots and programming code – they’re learning how to market the robot as a product, just like any other tech start-up.

“We run it like a company,” Highlander said as he gestured around at the group of students. “I’m technically the CEO, and [Principal] Jaime Sturdivant is the president, and we have different components to the operation.”

The club was an after-school activity years ago but folded after Highlander left teaching for a 10-year hiatus working at a bank. Now he’s back, teaching math at Bridgeport High School.

When some students expressed an interest, he decided to get the club going again.

Dream Team

DREAM TEAM – Gus White, Nathaniel Strother, Lance Coe and Timmy Tamplen each work on their respective duties as members of the Bridgeport Robotics Club. White helps build the robot, Strother documents engineering changes and Coe and Tamplen handle the marketing for the robot. Messenger Photo by Joe Duty

Among the “components” Highlander mentioned are marketing, engineering and programming teams that will all help the club on its way to the BEST Robotics competition Oct. 18. This year’s game is “Blade Runner” – an exercise in building wind turbines while avoiding common farm obstacles, like prairie chickens.

In the actual competition, the robot will have to move along a set path through a simulated farm to avoid obstacles the judges put in its way.

The Bridgeport club will be competing against 22 other teams in the “Heart of Texas Hub,” one of 20 “regions” in Texas. They will enter the marketing, documentation, exhibit and interview and spirit and sportsmanship categories. The winner goes on to the regional competition at UT Dallas.

More than 11,000 students compete each year, according to Best’s website.

Highlander said his engineers are an interesting bunch to work with.

“They’re an eclectic team with all sorts of traits,” he said. “Academically, some are on top, some aren’t on top, but they all contribute different things to the project.”

Building Success

BUILDING SUCCESS – Gus White, Kyle Baker and Lance Coe examine the Bridgeport Robotics Club’s robot last Thursday. The team will compete against other North Texas robotics teams Oct. 18 in the Texas BEST competition. Messenger Photo by Joe Duty

Every day after school, in room 104, the dozen or so members of the club work in organized chaos – a robot here, a programmed calculator on wheels there, laptops everywhere. The team sometimes stays until 6, tweaking their robot.

Freshman Timmy Tamplen is responsible for marketing the club, which includes everything from helping build product logos to designing merchandise to sell to potential shareholders. Yes, they sell shares just like any other company ($5 a share) and will begin bringing in money once the school board approves.

“Right now, we’ve got wristbands, lanyards, stress balls, buttons, customized playing cards and koozies,” Tamplen said. “We’ve been pledging those going door-to-door, and we’ll deliver them once we get our stocks approved.”

That money will go to fund other ventures like a 3D printer, junior Lance Coe said.

“I also want to get them involved in other stuff, like computer assisted design [CAD] and things like that,” Highlander said.

Coe is on the marketing team with Tamplen, along with Keaton Harvester and junior Zane Brown.

Other team members include sophomore Nathaniel Strother, who documents every engineering move; senior Kyle Baker, who helps program the robot; junior Gus White, who helped design the robot’s wheels and forklift; and sophomore Kellen McCauley, who helps out where ever he can.

And then there’s 11-year-old Elizabeth Highlander – the head programmer. She’s Stuart Highlander’s daughter and said she has no problem working with a bunch of boys who are older than her.

“It doesn’t really bother me that I’m the youngest, since I rarely come to the meetings anyway,” she said. “I’ve been doing robotics stuff since I was 2.”

It’s clear that other members don’t mind having her around. Most of the students defer to her on important decisions.

“She’s technically the most experienced of all of us,” Coe said.

Principal Sturdivant gave Elizabeth permission to help out. The McCarroll Middle School sixth grader helped program a game for the Bridgeport club that simulates what the competition will be like in real life.

Highlander said while his daughter was the only girl in the room on the day of the Messenger interview, some of the best work the club has done in the past has been done by female students.

“The best machine we’ve ever built was made by two girls a couple of years ago,” Highlander said.

Highlander said the robotics club and encourages students to pursue what they’re good at.

“It gives kids like her an avenue to be the star and to be the problem-solver,” Highlander said. “We don’t want to coddle these kids, and that’s the great thing about this competition. It’s entirely student-run. They don’t want me making parts or building the robot. Each decision is made by the kids, and nine times out of 10, they’re right.”

That type of learning environment means that often, the students themselves become the teachers. If one displays a skill the others don’t have, for instance, that student might end up teaching the rest of the group for two weeks on how to build or program something. It’s a setup that mirrors real life, Highlander said.

“It’s a great thing for these kids because it teaches them that there are direct consequences to their actions out there on the competition floor,” he said. “What we always try to tell them is to fail well, and to fail often, and that success is often only one step away from failure.”

Many students got involved in the club after recognizing an interest in STEM subjects early on.

Baker, who helps program the robot’s forklift, said he became interested in programming during his freshman year, when he learned he could hack his school-issued Mac computer.

“Once I figured that out, I got more involved in the programming side of things, and here I am,” Baker said.

Others are hoping to use the club as experience for their future careers.

“I like working with robots because it helps me with what I want to do – I want to be a Navy pilot,” McCauley said.

It’s a long way from Silicon Valley, but it’s entirely possible some of these students will end up there someday.

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