Interview with a High School Robotics Team Mentor


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On the floor of the recent Wisconsin SMTA Annual Tech Forum, I-Connect007 Technical Editor Happy Holden sat down with Aaron Denk, representing the local Cedarburg High School’s robotics team.

Happy Holden: Aaron, how did you get involved with this activity?

Aaron Denk: I started on the robotics team as a freshman, just kind of absorbing the information, learning the techniques and tasks and things like that, and then I evolved into more of a leader, teaching the up-and-coming students as they came into the program. I was part of the program all four years of high school and I have continued being a mentor as I go through college, as well.

Holden: How did this affect what you chose to do in college?

Denk: As a high school freshman, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I knew that I enjoyed working with my hands, but I really had no clear direction as to what I wanted to do. Being a part of the high school robotics team really showed me that I had the love for mechanical engineering and it guided me to what I wanted to pursue in a degree and a career throughout the rest of my life. It taught me skills that other students in my classes did not have, putting me one step ahead of the others.

Holden: You mentioned that now you have the role of a mentor. What’s that like on a team like this?

Denk: The high school robotics team is student-led and student-driven. The students make the decisions, but they work alongside industry professionals and a team of mentors that not only guide but teach and keep things rolling smoothly throughout the team. Students bounce ideas off mentors and take a second look at it. The mentors are there to guide and teach and to progress the students throughout the engineering process. We are a resource for the students as they run into design problems, and we help them as they brainstorm solutions.

Our robotics team is part of FIRST Robotics Competition, which is the highest and most advanced division of the robotics competitions through FIRST. FIRST is an acronym which stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.” That is the parent organization of the different robotics competitions. Throughout the FIRST robotics competitions this season, our team competed in St. Louis and the Wisconsin regional. At the Wisconsin regional, we qualified to go to the world championships this year in Detroit.

Holden: How did you guys do and who won, do you remember?

Denk: We ran into a little programming issue at Worlds that set us back just a little bit, but we were competitive. We learned throughout the whole experience and it was a memory to last a lifetime for the entire team. It was the first time the team made it that far. The students put in long and hard hours, and seeing their robot compete at such an advanced level made it worth it.

Holden: What have you learned by being part of the team versus the more traditional high school activities?

Denk: The neat thing about the high school robotics team is that it requires the knowledge that you learn in school, and it lets you apply it to a problem-solving challenge; you can see your successes at the competition. By learning these additional skills and using those skills, I was one step ahead of all the other students that are in some of my classes at college. Advanced manufacturing techniques and industry-level CAD software are just some of the things that are taught in robotics and not in school.

Holden: Do the mentor and sponsors conduct classes in these new skills that might be needed to compete like this?

Denk: There are some engineering classes and things like that, but nothing to this level of application and this level of industry work. Some of the stuff we do isn’t taught during the school day, for example TIG welding, SolidWorks, C++ programming. That kind of stuff isn’t taught in school, but it is used in the industry, so being part of the team got students access to these skills and these programs and they’ll be one step ahead of everybody else as they go into the industry or go into a career. When our students put on their resume that they have these experiences and have the knowledge of these advanced programs and skills, they are ahead of others coming out of high school.

Holden: I have taken a picture of their relatively large, complex robot. Was that designed, built and programmed by the students?

Denk: Yes, we have a team of about 20 to 25 students who participate in this after school club, totally student driven, student led, student designed. The team of mentors is there working alongside them, but if a student thinks that they want to make this change, they meet with their students and work through the pros and the cons of this design change and they work through all the situations that might occur and the alternate solutions, and they make the final decision as to what they want to pursue. So it is really a student based team and they teach themselves and they work with one another, but alongside mentors.

To read the full article, which appeared in the August 2018 issue of SMT007 Magazine, click here.

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