Put 850 elementary school students in a big tent, give them a bunch of Legos, and what happens?
They learn about science, technology, engineering and math.
That’s the idea behind the College of Engineering’s annual Robot Rally, which was held this year on May 10 in the engineering meadow. The rally, now in its seventh year, has been steadily gaining popularity and now includes students from 18 schools and seven school districts around the Los Angeles region.
“We provide students with a personally meaningful experience,” said mechanical engineering Professor Mariappan Jawaharlal, known as Jawa to students and colleagues alike. “Some parents told us that their children were so excited finding creative solutions in their robotics project that they were unable to sleep. Can you believe that? We have students who can’t wait to come to the class so they can work on their robots.”
For six months, the students carefully designed, crafted, programmed and tweaked their Lego robots, hoping to build a champion, a robot warrior that could outrun, outmaneuver and overpower the competitors.
The robots competed in a series of challenges: an obstacle course, line following, speed trials, and “sumo wrestling,” in which two robots attempt to push the other over the edge of a circular table. Sometimes victory was swift, but at one table, neither robot gave much ground. They pressed against each other, turning in slow circles as their little rubber wheels squeaked and slipped, trying to gain traction. Finally, one of the robots strayed too close to the edge and lost its footing. As it toppled over the side, the audience of students erupted with shouts, cheers and screams.
At the other end of the event, students were treated to a special performance by a robot much larger than the ones they had built.
“We came to show them the next step you can take in high school,” said Shelly Nordman, lead mentor for team Code Orange, which consisted of high school students from the Dana Point area. The team participates in the FIRST Robotics Competition on the national level and is tied to Cal Poly Pomona by engineering alumnus Andy Hedge, who also mentors the team.
“We love him. He’s giving us skills that we can take away and use the rest of our lives,” team member Cailin Helmick said, shouting to be heard over the din of her team’s robot snatching Frisbees off the floor and flinging them in rapid succession into the distance.
If all of this sounds like a good time, it is, said Ray Dunlap, a teacher at Euclid Elementary in Ontario. His school sent 11 teams of students to the rally.
“They’re very excited to be here today,” he said. “They couldn’t even sleep last night.”
It’s also a great opportunity for learning, Dunlap said. The teamwork and problem-solving required by the competition have helped create a “tremendous change” among his students.
Violet Gutierrez, principal of San Jose Elementary in Pomona, agreed.
“It really helps them communicate and work well together,” Gutierrez says.
Stephanie Baker, deputy superintendent for Pomona Unified, said her school district sent 130 of its students to the rally this year.
“To hear them tell me what they did differently based on what they learned last year — that’s critical. That’s 21st century education,” Baker said.
The rally also provides valuable outreach to girls, Baker says. Women have been historically underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math.
“I see so many girls here doing robotics, doing things in a field they would not have considered,” Baker says.
Cynthia Madrigal, a sixth grader from San Jose Elementary, said building a robot has helped boost her self-confidence.
“You feel good about it. You feel good about yourself,” Madrigal said.
(Photo: Students watch as a robot tries to maneuver down a straight line during the 7th Annual Robot Rally.)