Tips for High School Students Interested In Robotics

Robotics teams are popping up at schools around the world. There are many popular competitions that schools are participating in. Some of the most popular are FIRST Robotics, VEX Robotics, Science Olympiad, and NASA Robotics. Those are just a few of the great robotics competitions that schools participate in. Some robotics competitions are specific for certain age or educational groups, while others are open to anyone. Organizations, like VEX, host several different competitions each aimed at different age groups and having a different tasks that the robot has to complete.

  • If your school has a robotics team, JOIN! It doesn’t matter if you don’t know anything about robotics. You are at school, the point is to LEARN!
  • Robotics teams need more than just programmers, they need:
    • Artistic people to help make the robot look awesome, design team/robot posters, design team T-Shirts, and more.
    • Marketing/finance people to keep the team on track with their spending and earning sponsorships.
    • Leaders to keep team members on track and motivated even if the team isn’t doing well.
  • If your school doesn’t have a robotics team, talk to teachers to see if any of them are interested in starting one. Not every team has to compete in huge competitions. There are several smaller types of robots that can be built cheaply and teach students a lot without having to participate in a big competition.
    • There are many beginner robotics platforms that come with a variety of sensors that allows you to create a several types of robots. A few good examples are listed below.
    • SparkfunRedBot, Sparki, BOEBot, Generic Kit
  • Robotics doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. Some competitions, such as vex, require you to use specific components or kits of parts to build a robot. Others, such as the robotics part of Science Olympiad, have no specific material requirements. Make robots out of scrap material or cheap materials such as wood.
  • Take pride in the fact that you didn’t put together a kit to compete. Our college level robotics team recently built a budget robot out of wood, PVC, and old electronics and won 2nd place against 28 other teams that had far more complex and expensive robots.
  • KISS: Keep It Simple Stupid, many teams design and build very complicated robots that have multiple mechanisms for each task. This adds extra weight, complexity, and more failure points. The budget robot is a good example of this. Another even better example is Dusty, a robot designed and built at the last minute to be as simple as possible after our very complex robot failed.
  • Be a team player. The point isn’t always to win at a huge competition, the goal is to teach students how to work together and overcome multiple challenges.
  • Take classes related to robotics:
    • Shop classes help familiarize you with tools used to build robots. You can also build a good relationship with the teacher in charge of the shop and use them as a resource for help.
    • CAD classes help you learn how to design parts and see if there are any errors in a design before actually building it.
    • Programming classes, no matter what language, help you understand the fundamentals of how programming works.
  • Learn outside of school. Buy robotics kits/components or ask for them as gifts. There are TONS of great websites and YouTube videos that help you get started with robotics.
  • Don’t worry when things break. It happens to everyone. Electronics will “release the magic smoke” and no longer function. Take your time and double check that everything is connected correctly before turning on anything. When possible, place the robot on blocks to keep it from driving away if something goes wrong.

Building a robot is a huge challenge, especially if you don’t know where to start. The internet is an extremely helpful resource for building robots. Some of the best resources are the websites where you buy robot parts. Sparkfun and Adafruit are two of our favorite places to find parts and ideas. They both have great tutorials on their websites under the “learn” tabs and the pages for items used in the tutorials.
https://learn.sparkfun.com/tutorials
https://learn.adafruit.com/

Another great website is Instructables. You can search for tutorials and questions related to almost anything from robots to cooking. You can ask questions in the comment section of tutorials or publish a question for people to help answer.
http://www.instructables.com/

For programming arduinos, the best resource is the official arduino website. They also have a learning section as well as a forum where people post their projects and ask for help.
https://www.arduino.cc/

A general google search of the part you are using can also be very helpful. You might find someone doing something similar to what you are doing. Often times you will also find projects that use parts in a way you might not have thought of. The world is full of creative people, and the internet is a great place to find help and inspiration. Just remember to be safe. Use an account for your team instead of a personal one. This also leaves a good resource for everyone on the team.

Having trouble can be frustrating sometimes. A great lesson that I learned from one of my electronics professors is to take a break and come back with a calm mind. Often times you are so focused on the problem that you miss a very simple solution. Never be afraid to ask for help. Even if the person you ask doesn’t know much about the topic, they have a calm mind and might have a solution.

Building robots is a great way to learn about electronics, programming, motors, sensors, and mechanical design. But it is also a great way to learn how to be part of a good team. Being part of a team is a lot of fun and is really helpful when you start working and need to work with your coworkers.

Happy Building!