January 23, 2015
By Katlyn Smith
Something always goes wrong.
That's the running joke of competitive robotics, an unscripted world where technical skills matter just as much as teamwork.
And that's why Bartlett High School senior Ron Mikulecky was hands?off Thursday when introducing what he considers a sport to middle?schoolers. The pro — Mikulecky will join a team from Bartlett vying for a state title in March — didn't offer tips to the novices. He waited for the seventh? and eighth?graders to ask him questions.
"They're thinking more creatively as, 'What can I do with these parts?'" the 18?year?old said. "Or, 'What I can do to accomplish this goal?'"
Mikulecky usually races his contraptions on land, but educators behind an inaugural meet at the high school threw in an added challenge: water.
Nearly 40 students from Tefft Middle School in Streamwood maneuvered their own robots, named after action heroes, through an underwater obstacle course built by the teenagers. It was an opportunity to get kids interested in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, and connect them with older mentors.
"This little piece of excitement hopefully carries with them through the rest of their lives," said Candace Quetsch, a Bartlett High math teacher and faculty adviser to the technology student association. The club, which has about 90 members, helped organize the robotics meet Thursday.
Bartlett students built the course out of PVC pipe and hula hoops. To steer the machines through the maze, Tefft students used remote controls tethered, via an "umbilical cord," to the battery?powered robots.
"It's actually a lot harder than it looks," said Jakub Maniak, 12, who manned the controls for his team.
And something did go wrong.
Lifeguard Jeff Hurlbut, a Bartlett High junior, pulled off two rescues when robots got trapped in the course or simply died.
But the youngsters took ownership of the problems, making off?the?cuff repairs.
"This is nerve?racking," said seventh?grader Cristian Cantu, who threw his hands on top of his head and paced alongside the pool.
Like Mikulecky, Beth Michels — who teaches STEM curriculum at Tefft through Project Lead the Way ?http://www.pltw.uillinois.edu/? — didn't offer solutions for malfunctioning robots.
"It's that pride in what they're doing," she said.
Michels started a robotics club about two years ago. This year, she had to turn away some 30 students because of limited materials and space. But she hopes to seek corporate sponsorships and donations to meet the demand ?4?H provided the robotics kits in Thursday's meet?.
"You cannot avoid it anymore. Technology will be the future," Michels said. "So by having this electrical engineering experience, certainly communication experiences, social experiences — all of those things will make them more prepared for their future in any career."