SRDS Robotics Program Continues to Teach Valuable Life Skills

SRDS Robotics Program Continues to Teach Valuable Life Skills
Beth Meleski

Robots as an everyday part of life might have seemed far-fetched back in the days of The Jetsons and Star Wars, but these days, robots vacuum our floors (sadly they aren’t sassy like the Jetsons’ housekeeper Rosie was), perform surgery, work in factories, and, with the release of ChatGPT last November, robots have even started writing papers and acing the bar exam. 
At Saddle River Day School, the Robotics team is busy teaching their robot to pick up cones and stack them on specific spaces called “junctions” with the intention of connecting junctions end-to-end to form a complete circuit. Since September, when the 2022-2023 FIRST Tech Challenge, “POWERPLAY” was announced, this year’s SRDS Robotics team of 16 Upper School students has been working together to conceptualize, design, build, and code this robot to be able to achieve the required objectives. 
So what does that mean, exactly? It means that because the challenge is different each year, every Robotics competition season begins with no more than an idea. Students must imagine a machine that will be able to perform the tasks required and then must determine how to tell this robot machine what to do. “Watching the students’ thought process behind the engineering and design of the robot, and then the ways in which they troubleshoot and problem solve to improve and iterate their initial concept is the best part of coaching this team,” according to Steve Osvold, Middle School Science teacher and advisor to the RoboRebels, the SRDS Robotics team.
Osvold goes on to say that when he speaks to members of the community, they are usually fascinated by the challenge itself. The idea of coding or driving a robot that has been built to one’s own specifications feels like a video game come to life. And yes, Robotics competition days do feel like game days, with cheering fans, often wearing matching team swag, the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat. 
But behind the scenes, Robotics team members are learning valuable, transferable life skills like project management, time management, and teamwork, as they have only a few weeks to get their robots battle-ready after they’ve received the challenge. Design thinking (and re-thinking), and making adjustments and brainstorming solutions in real-time are skills the students hone. Students are learning the gift of failure and resilience, and how to take what they’ve learned and apply it effectively. They are also learning to benchmark against other teams, identifying other teams’ strengths and finding ways to incorporate these observations into their own designs. All skills that will serve them well in the rest of their academic life and far beyond.
The Saddle River Day School RoboRebels are made up of programmers who write the code that runs the robot, builders who construct the physical robot, and drivers, the skilled technicians who manipulate the robot. But there are also, increasingly, opportunities for students with different capabilities. One of the judged requirements of the FTC is an engineering notebook that has been updated and maintained as a build-and-test journal that keeps track of everything from the design drawings to all construction and coding changes that are made. There are other opportunities to score points for social media presence and community outreach, including volunteer efforts by the team. 
Steve Osvold sees a bright future for the RoboRebels. Plans and goals for the next few years include a demonstration tent at the next Homecoming festivities, building the RoboRebel Instagram presence, starting a Middle School team so students can get a head start on the skills they’ll need for the high school team, and growing the program to the point that it can be split into two teams, enabling all participants to have a meaningful role and a built-in support system (and cheering section). In the meantime, the RoboRebels are yet another example of how Saddle River Day School educates our students for their future... and who knows, maybe one day these kids will build a robot that can remind them to clean their room once in a while!