Additional Can’t Hold Down Hands-On Learning articles:
Sometimes, we talk about education in a
way that assumes teachers need to create
a love of learning in students. But there is
another school of thought that says a love
of learning is already intrinsic to most of us.
Maybe sometimes being a good educator is
really about providing the proper tools and a
little bit of guidance – and then just getting
out of the way. Often, the greatest learning
experiences are driven by learners themselves!
Here, we bring you the story of the Whitney
High School Robotics Club.
Gretchen Whitney High School in Cerritos,
California, is a magnet school that is currently
ranked as the Number 1 high school in
California. So, of course, a desire for academic
excellence and professional success is a
powerful drive for the students of WHS Robotics.
Indeed, current team members are well-versed
in the lore of previous team members who have
gone on to prestigious schools and prominent
careers in technology and engineering.
But the words of the students give the
unmistakable impression that the club is also
a labor of love. We think you’ll be inspired not
only by the love of learning the WHS Robotics
members display, but also their love of sharing
learning, especially the hands-on kind.
The robotics program at Whitney is multifaceted, but the first thing to
say about it is that it is extremely student driven. In the words of teacher
and club advisor, Matt Johnson, “I do have certain responsibilities, but
the students are not following my lead. And when it comes to designing
robots, they know more than I do.”
And that is the last time we will quote Mr. Johnson or any school
faculty here. The students are going to take the lead here too.
The next thing to know about WHS Robotics is that
the team has been remarkably successful. Since 2007,
Whitney’s FIRST® Tech Challenge team has
always advanced past qualifiers and has made it to
the FIRST World Championships several times. “Out
of the 15 regional level competitions we have
attended, we have won awards in 13. During this
season’s qualifiers, we won the Think, Inspire,
and Design awards,” explained Christine Liu, WHS
Robotics’ secretary and publicity head.
The program has a strong reputation for
excellence, and this is backed by an equally strong
dedication among team members: Generally, the
team meets three to four times each week,
with meetings typically lasting two to four
The 15-member FIRST Tech Challenge team is split into
three sections: Building, Programming,
and Publicity, each section having its own
internal structure. “Our team is very learning
based,” said team captain Darian Victoria.
“We pick up a lot of skills from using power
tools to design. Our programmers definitely
do a deep dive into Java and autonomous
programs. And our publicity members learn a
lot of marketing skills and event planning.”
Usually, one competition robot is built each
competition season, after an extensive R&D
and prototyping process, in which concepts
are tested using TETRIX® robot pieces, off-the-shelf items, and 3-D-printed pieces. (For
more about this, see “Building on the past”
below.) In addition, Whitney Robotics also
consists of a second robotics team that is not
competition focused and a FIRST LEGO® League
team at the younger level, for which
older team members provide mentorship.
But that barely scratches the surface of
what makes WHS Robotics so compelling. The
team has an extensive outreach mission that
makes a big impact in the Cerritos community
and generates an outsized interest in STEM
and robotics among the public school
district’s younger students.
The group regularly hosts open lessons
for students at the high school. Topics run
the gamut: everything from computer vision
and machine learning to CAD and marketing
psychology. During building workshops
with attendees, the group often uses TETRIX
robotics components from Pitsco such as
gears, motor hubs, and C channels.
Whitney Robotics also pioneered
RoboCamp, an annual summer program for
elementary and middle school students.
The camp focuses on robot design and
programming, as well as teamwork and
leadership skills. “What [students] are getting
from this week-long camp is an experience
of putting robots together, literally creating
things from scratch,” said Club President
Eileen Chang. During the pandemic,
the camp was transitioned into a virtual
camp. The fees were also waived because,
Eileen said, “we wanted to make it a more
accessible event for people.”
Science in a Box is yet another innovative
program created by the club. “We distribute
free STEM project kits to disadvantaged and
underrepresented children in our community
and host accompanying lessons to teach about
related STEM topics,” said Liu. “For example, the
children learn about sound waves when making
string telephones and learn about circuits when
Programs like these help young students
find their way to an interest in STEM and
robotics. In this remarkably student-driven
team, the students have taken up the
task of preparing the next generation
as well. And, for many on the team, this
mission is personal – they owe their own
interest in robotics to similar outreach they
experienced as younger students.
Whitney Robotics team member and FIRST LEGO League
mentor Eileen Lee explains that when she
was in second grade, her brother attended
a robotics camp. Ultimately, that exposure
led to her own robotics pursuits. “I’ve been
doing this since seventh grade – so, six years
now. Camp gives you a gateway into the
world of engineering. We didn’t know about
that before in my family.”
Club Treasurer Perry Han also remembers
the moment that he found his enthusiasm
for robotics, and it was thanks to an
outreach effort aimed at sparking
robotics interest. “Back when I was in
elementary school, we used to have
science nights. The Whitney High
School Robotics Team brought
their competition-level robots.
They set up a demo and a field.
. . . As an elementary kid, I just
thought, wow, that is so cool. And
that has been one of my driving
motivations for coming to Whitney
and joining the robotics team to
build and code my own robot.”
This initial flush of interest is a start,
but it is the continual rewards of hands-on
robotics education and team membership that
keep their enthusiasm high. “I’ve put a lot of
hours and a lot of commitment into this club,”
said Victoria. “The learning experiences that it
has given to me really drive me forward and
keep pushing me to do things on the team.”
WHS Robotics is not just a top-tier
competitive robotics group; for the students
on the team, it is also a place to explore, to
imagine, to create, and to share.
WHY HANDS ON?
“We believe that learning hands on is one of the most
effective and interesting ways to learn about engineering
and STEM,” said Christine Liu, Whitney High School Robotics
secretary and publicity head. Liu explained that the normal
classroom environment privileges theoretical examples.
However, hands-on robotics puts the theoretical to the test in
a functional build, and the result is greater comprehension.
“This is especially evident in concepts such as gear ratios.
While a typical class would gloss over it, we can create
working projects with TETRIX gears to see how speed and
torque change with gearing and incorporate this mechanical
advantage into designs for FIRST Tech Challenge. . . . Pitsco products have given
us the ability to understand how we can shape the world
around us through learning interactively.”
BUILDING ON THE PAST
For the Whitney High School Robotics FIRST Tech
Challenge team, each year’s competition robot is born
out a conversation between what has worked in the past and
innovative new ideas to meet that year’s competition challenge.
Team member and FIRST LEGO League mentor
Kirsten Yen shares details: “We have had a pretty consistent
drive train for about three years now. That has been through
iterations. We kind of know what to do and what not to do
on that. . . . For other things, it’s constantly changing every
year based on the game.”
The team uses Pitsco TETRIX pieces heavily during the
prototyping phases because the interchangeability of the
pieces and convenient fastener hole patterns make it
easier to work through new ideas. After ideas have been
fleshed out, the team branches out into more custom-designed
3-D printed and CNC pieces, as well as other off-the-shelf pieces used in creative ways. (TETRIX pieces are also
often used in the final robot for stability and motion transfer.)
For example, last year, the team created a ring-shooter.
First, it was prototyped using wood and TETRIX C channels.
In the final version, it was created with 3-D-printed pieces
that were made to snap together. This methodical approach
paid off: the ring-shooter performed well and they hit all