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Robotics teaches kids hands-on math, science

Korbin working on a motor
Maggie Kane

The Youth Robotics program hosted by Kellogg Community College in Battle Creek is part of a push to introduce kids to STEM topics – that’s science, technology, engineering and math – in a fun and interesting way.

Youth Robotics Coordinator Kim Andrews-Bingham says these skills will be useful when students enter the job market. 

“We really see locally in our community a real gap in manufacturing where STEM skills really fit in. And so right out back in this facility, we have industrial trades faculty at KCC, and they actually take the kids back there and they teach them how to cut custom parts for their robots and they teach them about how all this fits into the larger manufacturing process,” Andrews-Bingham says.

The team recently learned about gear ratios – how to determine what size gears to use in an engine.

“If you want to make a car have a lot of power, then you need to do a gear ratio one way, but if you need it to take off really fast like a race car, you might have to do it the other way,” Andrews-Bingham explained to the team. “What kinds of things would you need to, like in real life, why might that be useful?” she asked.

Hunter, an eighth grader whose favorite part of robotics is the engineering aspect, had an answer.

“Because motors can get fairly expensive for the power, you can easily just hook some gears up and get a cheap motor but tons of power,” Hunter said.

Coach Robb Cohoon says robotics allows students to explore STEM topics in a hand-on way, something that’s uncommon in areas like math.

“That’s the benefit of this robotics stuff, is they don’t realize that they’re learning something until it’s really – you give them the information behind it and you’re like, ‘Oh, well this is this,’ and they’re like, the light bulb goes on and they’re like, ‘Wow, you know, I didn’t realize that. You know, I know that,’” Cohoon says.

Some students say they prefer the club to math or science classes in school.

“I like it because it’s out of the box,” says Steven, a 6th grader. “You know, you’re learning stuff, but it’s not really like school. It’s just, you know, you can practically do anything.”

At this level, Cohoon said they stick to basic machines, not the kinds of robots you see in science fiction novels or movies. But in the real world, there’s no limit to what robotics can be.

“When you’re talking about robots, anything can be a robot," says Cohoon. "I mean, we can make cars robotic. These robots are more drones, in the sense that they’re like remote controls. We actually control them, so there’s not a lot of artificial intelligence involved in that."

Robotics involves collaboration, even at the competitive level. Different teams work in alliances during the competition, meaning they have to help each other out to succeed at a task.

“In the scientific community, you don’t have a lot of collaboration between different companies. You know, Samsung doesn’t work with Motorola and, you know, Chevy doesn’t work with Ford," Cohoon says. "However, if they did, you know, it makes you wonder… how much further along we would be in our society and how much better consumer products we would have."

Andrews-Bingham says she plans to expand the robotics presence in the community by increasing outreach to kids typically underrepresented in STEM programs, like girls and minorities. If you’re interested in robotics, camps run in July before the fall competition season.

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