All About High School Robotics
Building robots may sound like science fiction, but robots are a very real part of today’s world. Besides being just plain cool, robots are practically useful as tools in fields from manufacturing to space exploration to surgery. Becoming more familiar with robotics can lay the foundation for a career at the cutting edge of science, or at very least, a better understanding of the ways technology can be used to solve real-world problems.
Read on to learn more about how to get involved in robotics as a high school student, competitive robotics activities, and the benefits of improving your robotics knowledge.
What is robotics?
In general, robotics is the field concerned with the construction, programming, and use of robots, specialized machines designed to perform certain tasks that humans assign. Robots are currently used in a wide range of different fields, either to replace or to augment human labor.
Robots can go places that humans can’t, such as the crushing depths of the ocean or the toxic interior of a nuclear reactor, to help humans avoid the health risks of dangerous situations. They can also perform certain tasks with superhuman precision, speed, and efficiency. Some tasks are still better performed by human minds and hands, but robots have an important role to play in our current industrial and scientific technologies.
Within the field of robotics, humans have specific duties to perform. Robots need to be designed before they’re physically built. Once they’re put together, their computerized brains must be programmed to perform the right tasks. People are also needed to control, maintain, and repair the robots, as well as to strategize how they’ll be used. Students in a robotics club or team might perform any (or more than one) of these responsibilities.
In recent years, interest has soared in robotics as an educational and recreational activity, particularly among young people. Across the globe, you’ll find groups of young people engaged in extracurriculars and after-school activities in which they work as teams to build, program, and use robots.
Some of these activities have a competitive component, which we’ll discuss in more detail below. Groups might compete to see whose robot can perform a task the fastest or most effectively, and use these competitions to demonstrate their skills in building, programming, and controlling the robot.
Competitive robotics has even broken into the entertainment world. Programs like BattleBots, in which teams build robots and guide them in combat with each other, have become particularly popular for the way they combine interesting technical skills with drama and excitement.
Robotics Opportunities in High School and Beyond
While some programs may introduce students to basic robotics skills early in life, high school is where extracurricular robotics has really flourished. At the simplest level, high school clubs, after-school programs, and community groups (such as Boy and Girl Scout troops) can teach the relevant skills and background knowledge while allowing students to experiment and gain hands-on experience.
Competitive robotics activities, however, have gained special attention. The addition of competitive excitement, tangible goals, and the opportunity to stand out through victory makes these events particularly appealing to teenagers.
Typically, if you join a competitive robotics team or club, you’ll work collaboratively with a group of other students to build, program, and use a robot in competitive settings. Often, students will take on specific, designated roles to make the project run smoothly. One or more adult leaders or advisors will be available to help with administrative needs, provide advice, and ensure that projects are carried out safely.
Robotics competitions open to high school students exist on a variety of different levels, from local or regional contests to national or international conferences that may require travel. Some of the better-known competition organizations include the FIRST Robotics Competition, the VEX Robotics Competition, the International Robotics Olympiad, and RoboCup.
Some robotics competitions are open to all entrants, while others require you to work your way up through a series of wins in lower-level contests. High performers may be rewarded with accolades and titles, trophies, or even monetary prizes, depending on the competition.
For an example, let’s look at the VEX Robotics Competition, which puts on tournaments for students from middle school through college. Robots compete to solve “game-based engineering challenges,” either head-to-head or against a clock, and must work both autonomously and when controlled by a human driver.
In addition to the glory of victory, participants in VEX competitions can earn trophies and awards, either for winning matches or for excelling at particular aspects of the competition, such as design. VEX puts on over 750 competitions per year, from local contests to world championships, and award possibilities depend on the local group that’s hosting a particular tournament.
High school robotics competitions extend all the way up to the global level. Recently, a group of teenagers from Afghanistan made headlines with their efforts to secure visas to attend the FIRST Global Challenge, a robotics competition being held in the United States. (After presidential intervention, they were able to make it to the competition, where they were treated as celebrities.)
As the Washington Post reported, competitors at the FIRST Global Challenge not only flexed their engineering skills, but used their shared interest to bridge cultural and political gaps as they worked and competed side by side. This story is a prime example of how getting involved in robotics can not only help you build your engineering schools, but also have unexpected benefits for networking and expanding your horizons.
For future reference, you may also have opportunities to enter robotics competitions in college, possibly even as part of your school’s official team. Keep in mind that not every college offers competitive robotics, and you’re more likely to find these programs at schools with strong engineering or other STEM programs.
If you’re interested in making a career out of your interest in robotics, you’ll find opportunities to do so after college — someone needs to design, build, and maintain robots necessary to society’s functioning. As we’ll discuss below, the practical and personal skills you’ll gain can also be applied to many other career fields. You might also choose to continue pursuing robotics recreationally through adult competitions.
Starting Your Own Robotics Club or Team
High school robotics has become more popular in recent years, but it’s still far from ubiquitous. If your school or local community doesn’t offer any robotics opportunities, starting your own robotics program — whether it’s a casual club or a competitive team — is a helpful way to create an opportunity to engage with your interests while also showing initiative and leadership.
At the CollegeVine blog, we’ve covered the process of starting your own extracurricular. Take a look at these posts to learn more about the basics of establishing a club, building membership, dealing with school administrators, and strengthening your organization:
One issue of special concern if you’re trying to start a robotics club is that building robots has the potential to be more dangerous than some other extracurriculars. Students will need safety training to work with electrical wiring, cutting tools, chemicals, and other hazards of the field. They’ll also need a knowledgeable staff member to supervise them and a safe and appropriate place to work.
Another factor you’ll need to keep in mind is funding. Computer equipment, building materials, and competition fees can be costly. While you might be able to save some money by focusing on lower-cost packaged robotics kits, such as the popular LEGO robotics system, these products have their limits and still represent a substantial expense.
Not every high school has the necessary budget to fully fund a robotics club or team. However, if you’re really passionate about starting a robotics club, it’s worth researching your options and advocating for your school to fund your club. You might also be able to get help from an outside funding source, such as a corporate sponsorship or a grant.
Why get involved with robotics?
Whether you’re looking forward to a career in robotics, or you’re simply curious about the subject, it’s worth looking into how you can get involved — you have a great deal to gain. Here are some of the benefits you might get from joining a robotics team or club in high school. Not only can these benefits help you personally, they can strengthen your college applications.
- Combining STEM knowledge, practical hands-on building skills, and a great deal of creativity, which may be a fit for your talents and interests
- Competing in a fun and exciting setting with your peers, with opportunities to earn awards and other indicators of high performance
- Challenging yourself to become an expert in a specialized field that’s usually not taught in high school classrooms
- Producing a tangible end product that you can use to visually demonstrate what you accomplished in that activity
- Learning how to build and repair physical machinery and electronics, which can come in handy in everyday life as well as many careers
- Gaining a background in computer programming, which is valuable in the present job market, especially in cutting-edge and entrepreneurial fields
- Supporting your specialized interest in technology and related fields so that you can put together compelling college applications
- Building a strong foundation in engineering and other STEM fields so that you can hit the ground running once you get to college
If the idea of joining or starting a robotics club appeals to you, you may be interested in exploring the larger field of engineering as you consider your college and career options. Check out these posts from CollegeVine to learn more about what engineering encompasses and how to prepare if you’re contemplating the field.
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Not sure if engineering is the best path for you? Don’t sweat it. Few high school students have everything figured out already, and many will change their minds later. You still have plenty of time to explore different subjects and activities.
Looking for help navigating the road to college as a high school student? Download our free guide for 9th graders and our free guide for 10th graders. Our guides go in-depth about subjects ranging from academics, choosing courses, standardized tests, extracurricular activities, and much more!
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