Matthew Lee still has total recall of the moment. It was early March, and San Marino High School’s Titanium Robotics team was about to depart for a major competition in Kansas City when the group received the bad news.
“We had a lunch meeting scheduled, all about the upcoming Kansas City competition,” said Lee, a senior, who serves as the team’s engineering president. “It was surreal to have to attend the meeting with a totally uncertain and undefined future.”
The COVID-19 pandemic canceled the tournament, the remainder of the season and all in-person interaction on Friday, March 13. Typically a hotbed of activity — especially in the weeks leading up to tournaments — the robotics room was immediately abandoned, like most of the campus, as students moved on to online learning or graduation.
“The team’s general sentiment was disappointment with how prepared we were only to have it all pulled away,” said Lee. “It really didn’t register on us, at least not immediately. Our room was also left more or less untouched, and the fact that we haven’t been in it yet is part of the uncertainty and inauthenticity this year has brought us.”
In fact, the robot, a toolbox and associated materials that were to be sent to Kansas City for the competition remain packed for shipment in the robotics room, exactly where they were left.
But like the proverbial phoenix rising from the ashes, robotics is back even though students continue to learn remotely amid the pandemic. The team is 70 members strong and looking forward to a season that will be, like most aspects of life, different, unique and requiring adaptability.
“One positive sentiment shared by the team was how the only people who seemed to understand it and sympathize were teammates dealing with the same issues,” said Lee. “So even in sadness and even when the robot couldn’t, the robotics team performed as it always does, helping bring kids with a common interest and drive together.”
It has been all quiet on the western front — quite literally, as the robotics room is perched on what is commonly referred to on campus as West Drive — until a few weeks ago when the team received some rare good news.
“We found out that we will be able to compete in alternative events starting this coming January,” said junior Gavin O’Malley, the team’s public relations officer. “However, the format of any traditional, in-person competition has yet to be determined. The sunny side of that unfortunate fact has been that we have been able to dedicate time to more internally focused projects, like rebuilding our website and overhauling our team’s social media presence. For much of the past, the two of these facets of our team have gone somewhat neglected and appeared to some degree bland.
“So if all goes to plan by the time this pandemic has come to a close, our team Instagram will have cultivated an audience through fun and interesting STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] information, robotics fun facts and a friendlier appearance altogether.”
O’Malley explained the need to create a “new normal” around the robotics team.
“If the year had been ‘normal,’ our mechanical and hands-on team would be hard at work both designing the new robot and learning how to build it,” he explained. “This consists of learning safety protocols for tools, or gaining familiarity with the CAD [computer-aided design] softwares we use. But since nearly all of that isn’t possible now, our team’s more experienced members now run and teach their own virtual classes once a week.”
Team members have employed a relatively new platform called EdStem, which allows us them to consolidate all of the online classes into one space and create assignments for the students.
“In this way, the team members are able to attend as many classes as they would like, and the learning experience is efficient and effective for both our students and our student-teachers,” O’Malley said of the method, which is referred to as Virtual Academy. “In resuming our classes in a virtual format, we’ve ensured that our new group of underclassmen are still able to learn as much as they normally would back in the school environment. They will also be able to serve and compete later as well as other more experienced team members. Additionally, if and when we start in-person classes up again, our team members will be ready to jump back into regular activities like competitions.
“Simply put, our Virtual Academy is a way of preserving the transfer of knowledge between grades, and keeping our students ready and able for the return of school, whenever that may be.”
Anyone who has ever witnessed students working on a robot readily understands that it is among the more hands-on of all pursuits. But many of the younger students have never touched one.
“Some of our members are involved in the business side of our team. As a result of this, these members never come into contact with the robot,” O’Malley said. “Our business division ranges from graphic design, to website design, all the way to social media and P.R. All of these positions are crucial to keeping the team successful, funded and moving, but their skills are not as directly applicable to the bots as someone in our electrical department may be.”
Despite the comparative isolation, team members are still able to participate and engage in increasingly complex projects with the help of the engineering student-teachers.
“This school year, I’d say one of the biggest challenges we’ve faced was trying to construct a learning environment comparable to the one we’d normally have had with the robotics room at school,” said Marcus Chua, president of Titanium Robotics. “We began building our learning system this summer, when we held our Virtual Summer Academy to teach incoming freshmen some of the skills they would need to know to be successful on the team. Fortunately, we were able to use the knowledge we gained from teaching in summer to create better lesson plans and make our classes more interactive. I’d say we have much to learn in terms of how we can further improve on how we teach new students, but I am grateful that we’ve been able to help our newer members learn about STEM and get to know the team before even setting foot on campus.”
Longtime faculty adviser Scott Barton has three assistants — Keiko Hiranaka, Gabriel Weis and Kaylor Cruz — who help the seven experienced team members who teach the classes. From the beginning, Barton has insisted it be a student-driven team and he has never deviated from that directive.
Barton said the team will be participating in some competitions — virtually, of course — meaning that the robots will be filmed completing the prescribed task and submitted to judges in lieu of the rigorous inspection procedure they are typically subjected.
“I’m really proud of all of our team members for coming together in a really difficult time and being positive, innovative and helpful,” Barton said. “The team is not going to let the coronavirus stop us from learning and teaching robotics skills.”