Building Robots at School

August 4, 2010

Getting Started With Robotics

Filed under: Uncategorized — dtengineering @ 8:57 am

Today I’m giving a talk to a UBC Technology Teacher Education class on the topic of “getting started with robotics in your school.”

It’s a tough topic because there are as many different ways to get started with robotics as there are schools. Each school has a unique combination of students, parents, teachers, administrators and resources that will affect how a program is conceived and grows. That said, I have seen that there are a few common issues that face most teachers as they try to do something good for their students.


The number one issue that comes up when discussing robotics is “where does the money come from”. At a time when schools are struggling to maintain the programs that they already have, it can seem an odd time to try starting something new. The good news, however, is that money is actually one of the easier start-up problems to solve. If you have an enthusiastic teacher, and some excited students, you can often find the funds to get started in a small competition such as VEX, FTC or FIRST Lego League. Even a Skills Canada machine can often be funded from resources available within the school/district. Chances are you’ll never have all the resources available that you WANT, but you can often find the $1,000 or so you need to get a team started and then build from there. As Mick Jagger says, “You can’t always get what you want… but if you try sometimes, you might just find, you’ll get what you need.” I think he was talking about something other than robotics funding, but hey… it works.

So where can you look within the school. A great source for BC teachers is the annual PAC grant. PAC is the Parent Advisory Council and they receive an annual grant from BC lottery funds of about $40 per student at your school. There are specific restrictions on how the money can be spent, and competitive robotics, particularly as an extra-curricular activity, fits those restrictions perfectly! The catch is that the funds are usually disbursed before Christmas, so if you want to access them, you have to act fast in the fall. Casually dropping by a PAC meeting in September just to introduce yourself and say what wonderful students you have and how happy you are to be at the school is a great way to get to know the PAC chair and board. Wait a while before you ask about the PAC grants, though… they know you want grant money, and you know you want grant money, but there is no reason to be vulgar about it. In many schools the principal can also influence PAC grants insomuch as they help the PAC by prioritizing the requests relative to how they help the school meet the school goals. It wouldn’t hurt to drop in to the Principal’s office at some point to discuss your plans and how to structure them to support the school goals. Administrators tend to be big on school goals, and as they are probably the third most important group of employees in the school (after the Office Staff and Engineering Staff, of course) it is great to have their suport. There is no guarantee that you’ll be able to get PAC funding, of course, but typically if you’ve got a good presentation (ask if students can make a presentation on robotics… they are waaayyyyy more convincing than you….) and the support of admin, you should be able to get some funding to get up and running. Ask for $1,500 – $2,000 in your first year if you’re planning to run a VEX team.

The principal also can help you find money from other sources. Even when admin says they don’t have money… they still have a little bit tucked away somehwhere. Keep in mind that you’re typically looking for somewhere around $1,500 – $2,000 to start a team. That is a tiny, TINY fraction of the school’s budget. Sometimes admin will have to be creative with where they find the funds, sometimes you’ll have to get to know someone at the board office, sometimes an experienced teacher can advise you how best to approach your school’s admin, but the number one thing is to keep it positive. Talk about how excited the kids are, what a great opportunity robotics is, and what an advantage other schools have for their students by offering robotics. Although it is easy… too easy… to be cynical about the whole administrative structure, I have NEVER met an administrator at the school or district level who didn’t want to do good things for kids. Keep it positive, don’t whine, and you might be surprised at the little pockets of funds that are hidden here and there within the school. Each school and each district has a different budgeting process, so it will be important to learn how funding works at your location. And remember how I mentioned that the admin was the third most important group? Keep on the school accountant’s good side!


Some robotics projects fit in to existing IRP’s and courses. Tethered mini-sumo bots fit in to just about any junior tech class. Autonomous mini-sumos fit in to electronics. Battlebots and Skills Canada robots are great for metal work. You can be fairly creative about how you fit Lego or VEX robotics in to existing classes. But often, for competitive robotics the best place to start is with a club. Clubs allow you a great deal of flexibility on what you do, who is doing it, and when it is happening. With a class you have to “take all comers” as anyone who signs up for the course usually gets to take it. When you’re starting out, however, you might want to have a smaller, keener group… just to set a high standard. And inevitably the students are going to want some after school time to work on the robot, so you may as well face it… if you’re doing robots, you’re probably not going home at 3:20! (Or whenever your last bell rings.)

Clubs are also a good way to start as they can sometimes access funding more easily than classes. PAC grants are much easier to make for extra curricular activities than for curricular ones, for example. At David Thompson we ran our VEX teams as a club for five years, adding one team (and one kit) every year until we had five kits… enough to run a class of five teams of five students per team. Building slowly, over time, is one way to get past the start up costs of close to $10,000 that it would take to initiate a new class of VEX robotics.

The other benefit to starting as a club is that you might happen to run in to some ananticipated successes that resonate throughout your school. At Gladstone, the now legendary team 721 travelled to the World Championships as grade 10 students working on an extracurricular project and did so well that the whole school community rallied around the robotics program, building it in to the curriculum and supporting it with funding and staffing resources. At Moscrop, when a bulletin notice invited students to join a robotics team, and over 80 students showed up, it made it possible for the teacher to make a really strong argument that two VEX kits weren’t quite enough.

Eventually, however, you are going to want to build a successful robotics program in to the school’s timetable. For that you can either hijack an existing course, as I did with my Engineering 11 class, and other teachers have done with their Electronics classes (actually there is an Electronics 12: Robotics course code out there) but chances are you’ll want something a bit more customized to your school. That’s where BAA courses come in… both my Robotics and Flight 10 class and Engineering 11/12 classes were BAA (Board/Authority Approved) courses. To get a BAA course code you have to go through some paperwork… and it has to be neat, orderly, and convincing… the i’s must be dotted and the t’s crossed. Think of it as preparing a drag car for tech inspection… if you do a good job on the paint and detailing, the inspector is going to have a positive opinion of your car before they even lift the hood. It’s not always as fun to make your documents look sharp, but just jump through the hoops and get it over with. People WILL be looking at your BAA application, and will generally give you approval so long as you give them what they want. Once you’ve got the course code… you’re golden! You will have a great deal of professional latitude as to how strictly you follow it, so long as you provide a meaningful educational experience for the students.


I’ll have to write a bit more on this later… I’ve got to run out to UBC to talk about this now…


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