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Baraboo middle school robotics club gets boost from state grant

January 19, 2019

Jack Young Middle School’s robotics club received a boost this month through a grant of about $1,000 from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

This is the first year the state agency offered robotics league participation funds to middle schools, according to JYMS science, technology, engineering and mathematics teacher Stacy Parsons. Baraboo High School has received the grant before.

Middle school students of any grade can join the club, which holds hourlong workshops after school once a week, though Parsons said she had to cap membership at 34 due to a lack of supplies. She noted it’s grown in popularity since she started the club in 2016.

“They just love to build and to experiment with the different designs and capabilities of making the robots move and complete different tasks,” she said.

A “part cart” in the school’s STEM room holds nuts, bolts, motors and other metal pieces that students can assemble into robots. Parsons said they sometimes start with basic builds from a how-to book, but most create their own unique designs.

Technology education teacher Doug Stetzer said club members get some instruction at the beginning of the year on how to create programs that define their robot’s movement and how to add lifting mechanisms, for example.

“After that, it’s a lot of kind of independent work,” Stetzer said. “We really try to have them be the engineer of the project and develop and research the solution, and (we) assist them in whatever way we can.”

Problem-solving, teamwork, compromise and technical skills such as coding are some of the skills students develop in the club, Parsons said.

Some members, in teams of two or three, are currently preparing designs for a regional SkillsUSA competition Jan. 25 at Southwest Wisconsin Technical College in Fennimore, and several teams are signed up for the state competitions on April 30 and May 1, Parsons said. This is the second year the JYMS club has participated in competitions as a SkillsUSA chapter.

Sixth-graders Elina Voronecky and Claire Wiler — two girls in a club comprised mostly of boys — are designing their robot for the Urban Search and Rescue challenge, in which their creation needs to be able to locate, neutralize and dispose of an object representing explosive materials, according to Parsons. During the operation, they control the robot remotely and only can see what it’s doing through a mounted camera. The task is meant to mimic situations police or other emergency services could encounter.

The two girls also will compete in the Team Engineering Challenge at the SkillsUSA regional, in line with Wiler’s goal to become a computer engineer. That day, they will have to design, build and test a machine to complete a task using provided materials and design requirements.

Other students prefer to tinker and build without the pressure of an outside competition, so the club also offers more relaxed in-house competitions: one tests speed, one is an obstacle course and a third at the end of the year called “Battle Bots,” where the robots have to try to push each other out of a ring.

“They get pretty into it” even if they’re not competing, Parsons said. “They’re just really supportive of each other in trying to help, coming up with different ideas and how they can make things better.”

In addition to paying competition fees, Parsons plans to use the grant to purchase better cameras, which should help club members perform better during obstacle courses. The grant requires recipients to match the funds, Parsons said, which the Baraboo School District agreed to do. Private sponsors, including Seats Inc. of Reedsburg and Ryte Byte Inc. of Baraboo, also have helped cover expenses ranging from fees to travel.

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