Robotics Club unlocks STEM potential

Anthony Fusco, of Lander, worked on a robotic hand on Saturday during a Robotics Club event at Wyoming Indian High School. Photo by Sarah Elmquist Squires.

By: Sarah Elmquist Squires
Managing Editor

Anthony Fusco leaned over a bright green, three-pronged device, working intently. He connected a battery panel and pushed a button. Two of the claws curled up, gripping the air, and Fusco hunched back down, intent on the wires laced through the static third green finger. Engrossed in his work at Wyoming Indian High School on Saturday, he explained, “I’m trying to build a hand for our robot so it can grab things.”

Spread throughout the gymnasium, teams of students tinkered and prodded wheeled machines, hefted toolboxes and laptops and gaming controls. They were perfecting their robots for the scrimmage meet, and instead of donning school colors in fierce rivalry, they helped one another — they loaned tools and bounced ideas from one school to the next, united in a seemingly common theme: Build the coolest robots, together, and put them all to the test on the robotic battlefield.

Welcome to the Robotics Club.

Darrius Boyer of Wyoming Indian High School was eager to try out his team’s robot in the competition area, which looks like a giant, short glass aquarium fitted with yellow poles as obstacles. This season, robot arms need to grab red and blue plastic cones and fit them over the poles to earn points. But that’s just the tip of the mechanical iceberg.

Coach Scott Krassin explained that there are a few areas of competition. There’s the autonomous portion, where the robots must be programmed to perform tasks — no controllers allowed. Then, the teams work the gaming controls to perfect this season’s tasks (red and blue cones fitted to yellow poles). Then there’s a 30-second “end game” where the robots are controlled by team members in a bid to score some big points. But right now, at the very beginning of the season, it’s all about working together and perfecting those machines for competition.

“They’re going to constantly be working on these robots until the middle of February at State,” Krassin explained. And unlike a lot of competitive school activities, there are few trade secrets in robotics; kids and coaches alike help one another. “All the coaches coach everybody, it doesn’t matter where you’re from,” Krassin shared. “The kids help everybody. It’s a really cool organization.”

Robotics is a relatively new school activity, and it embraces pretty much every letter in the STEM acronym — science, technology, engineering, and math. It opens a world of possibilities; Krassin’s students have worked with NASA engineers on their ideas, and robotics team members are also in charge of outreach, bringing in and mentoring younger students, and financing their sport. Kids routinely compete at State, Nationals, even eyeing the competition at Worlds.

June Darin is the student outreach coordinator for her Jackson Hole team, and handles the team’s website, design, and marketing. She said a lot of the work they do is bringing in younger students and helping them build their technology chops. Her coach, Gary Duquette, explained: “Robotics, for the older kids, it’s all about spreading the word about STEM. They’re trying to get as many kids exposed to STEM-types activities as they can.”

Robotics teams have developed across Wyoming with the same cooperative spirit the students embrace, with teams and coaches encouraging and assisting other schools to join in. Jackson helped start Wyoming Indian’s program, and Krassin, who was named Coach of the Year last year, oversees several Wyoming programs. This year, they’ve got some Lego kits — which are used for younger student robotics programs — that the older kids will bring to elementary students in March to get them excited about robotics.

Everything about robotics is aimed at collaboration, from the way coaches help one another to develop programming, to the way the sport is organized itself. During competition, teams are grouped together, not divided by school affiliation, and they have to problem-solve together. It’s great preparation for the real world, and these kids are in demand when they hit the workforce. They learn coding, they’ve got engineering concepts down pat, and they know how to work together. They don’t just order parts and fit them together; instead, they design the components, use 3D printers to create them, then test and refine them together.

“Not everybody’s going to be a coder,” Krassin shared. But the skills Robotics Club kids learn in the program are, themselves, difficult to hone even in college. The students who fine-tune their engineering and coding skills through robotics and enter post-secondary programs armed with them, well, “When you go out there there will be people running over each other to try to hire you,” Krassin shared.

Robotics Club does a lot for students, it’s clear. There are some costs to the program, too, that pay dividends. Krassin’s teams have been fortunate enough to benefit from donors like HDR in Lander and the Wind River Casino. Those interested in donating, or just finding out more about the programs, should email scott.krassin@wyo4life.net.