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US Robotics Team prepares
to storm the gates—literally

Mr. Pelofsky introduced students to the 2014-2015 school year with a clip from the movie Apollo 13, adding that a Greenhills education would teach them the thinking skills to make “this” using nothing but “that.” 

Nowhere do students more explicitly engage in the complex problem solving Mr. Pelofsky referenced than on the Greenhills Robotics Team, for which I am a mentor.

Fittingly, Greenhills started a robotics program in the 2014-2015 school year with Middle School teams and an Upper School team. The Upper School team competes in the First Robotics Competition (FRC for short). Every year, FRC creates a brand new game played on a basketball court-sized field, releases it to the teams in early January, and gives the teams six weeks to build a robot from scratch. During those six weeks, the Upper School team meets more than 15 hours per week, which results in many more than 1,000 person hours invested in our robot.

The Upper School team recently reached the end of the six week build season and will compete starting March 25. The 2016 game, which has a medieval castle theme, requires teams to pick up “boulders,” traverse defenses, and capture an opponent’s castle by shooting the boulders through a seven-foot high goal. To get an idea of the complexity of the game you can watch this brief video introduction.  This year, Greenhills brought nearly 40 students to the kickoff at the University of Michigan and will being nearly that many to competition. Not bad for a second-year team.

The robotics team is like few activities at Greenhills: it is a hybrid of an academic environment, a club, a sports team, and an internship. The adults involved with the team are not coaches, but mentors. They instruct, guide, encourage, model, and hold students to high standards. Time pressure during build season is intense and the team has an intellectually rigorous environment, mimicking a real engineering situation.

Robotics also introduces students to the complexity of the real world. The project is large enough that no one person on the team, mentors included, knows everything about the robot. The team needs members to become experts about certain aspects of the machine and to remain responsible for those aspects throughout the season. Some team members are adept at the mechanical aspects, some know about the sensors and electrical system, and some are software experts. Even reading (and remembering!) the 111-pages of rules is a challenge. When you meet a student on the robotics team, congratulate them for their dedication, intellect, and willingness to take on a daunting project. They all embody the mission of Greenhills of creating curious, creative, and responsible citizens.

You might pause when you see my name associated with the robotics team and think, “Doesn’t he teach math and economics; how did he get involved?” The short answer is that I was naive enough to say yes. The longer answer involves a graduate degree in engineering (that I have never actually used professionally), a bit of handiness, a willingness to solve new problems, and the greater expertise of other mentors. The team could not exist without Jau Wen Tseng, Tom Quinn, and Gopal Chimarthi, who as mentors have donated countless hours and a wealth of expertise to the students.

If the program sounds like a good fit for you as a mentor, please seek me out to get involved. We have also had great support from parents who have fed us during our Saturday and Sunday meetings, and will provide food during our three day competitions. Additionally, the board, Mr. Nickel, Mrs. Miller, and the administration have been incredibly generous in their support. Robotics is a space-intensive endeavor and we could not have produced anything without the graciousness of Deano Smith and James Lupton, who have let us build in the physics lab despite the considerable disruption. Thank you!

I truly believe that the robotics team is the most interesting and important educational endeavor of which I have been part. Students learn hard skills, problem solving techniques, and habits that they get nowhere else at school. FRC calls robotics “the only sport where everyone can go pro.” That message resonates with me. Last year, we sent four team members into STEM majors at prestigious universities, some with scholarship opportunities because of their involvement with FRC.

I hope that the trickle of STEM majors from the Greenhills robotics program develops into a steady flow. Please, encourage your children and students to seek out the unique challenge and opportunity that is the Greenhills robotics team. They will be better people for it and it might just change their lives. To quote one young woman on the team, “Robotics has become such a large part of my life that I don’t know what I’ll do when it ends!”

—Alex Monte-Sano, Greenhills math and economics teacher

Saturday, April 24
Open to anyone ages 16 and up. Limited quantities available.
Greenhills is closed for mid-winter break and will return on Tuesday, Feb. 22.