Stanley Hunter, OCT, gears his students up for greatness in the wild world of robotics.
By Trish Snyder
Photos: Markian Lozowchuk
Online: To view our Great Teaching video archive, visit Professionally Speaking
It’s the end of the day at Orchard Park Secondary School in the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, and as one group of students trickles out of a computer science and engineering class, a fresh batch shuffles in for an after-school meeting. The latter are members of Team 2056, Stanley Hunter’s world-renowned robotics squad. They compete at robotics tournaments around North America using machines built to perform tasks with the precision of a Star Wars storm trooper while resembling something that escaped a high-tech assembly line. In Ontario, this team from Stoney Creek is the one to beat.
At the meeting, students take turns reporting on team business — everything from a food drive with the Stoney Creek fire department that collected 3.5 tonnes of non-perishables to the robotics workshops that mesmerized visiting Grade 8s. After divvying up the day’s to-do list, one pair goes off to fix a stalled robot while another inventories spare parts. Then Hunter delivers a sobering reminder about the team’s sponsorship shortfall. They’ve raised $43,000 this year, but they still need $32,000 — robot parts don’t come cheap. “Remember, kickoff is in 45 days,” says the soft-spoken teacher, who can’t help but smile as they burst into chatter in anticipation.
Kickoff happens in January when FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), the U.S.-based organization that runs these contests, releases the game the robots will play at tournaments. Past challenges have required them to sink basketballs or score soccer goals. But this isn’t an individual boxing match; the machines must also work with their competition at the game to outscore opposing squads. Then there’s the ambitious timeline — schools have six weeks to build their concept from top to bottom, which has students working up to 30 hours per week — on top of their classes and homework. One student sums it up for the rookies: “Kickoff is the day you can kiss your social life goodbye.”
But it’s a sacrifice this group willingly makes. Since Hunter introduced the robotics team, in 2007, they’ve won 19 straight regional titles (a world record), advanced to eight world championships and earned numerous awards for the calibre of their creations. One hundred per cent of these students graduate and pursue post-secondary studies; 90 per cent of them specialize in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). In 2010 alone, Hunter’s 13 grads scored over $120,000 in scholarships. But for Hunter, robotics isn’t just about the robots. Working together to make a complicated machine from scratch, on budget and on deadline, builds even more valuable life skills — from communication to organization to critical thinking. His efforts have earned him a handful of awards, including a 2014 Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence. “If every teacher involved their students in learning and challenged them with higher-order thinking as much as Stan does, you’d have an entire school engaged,” says principal Marco Barzetti, OCT.
Hunter puts in countless hours to run the team on top of his course load, but almost 10 years ago, he faced an even bigger challenge. Disillusioned by young people who weren’t inspired to learn, he was ready to quit teaching — that is, until he attended a robotics tournament. What happened on the field was a revelation: students used remote consoles to coax their constructions to manoeuvre around obstacles and score points while working with machines built by other schools. Off the field, they analyzed the performance of top robots to form strategic alliances for upcoming matches. If a school needed help, an announcement went out on the PA system and teams rushed over with parts. The contest combined the competitive intensity of a sport with the co-operative spirit of a school fun day, while about a thousand spectators cheered like they were watching rock stars. “I was in awe,” says Hunter. “Suddenly I had something real to connect my classes to. Robotics gave me back my passion for teaching.”
Back in the classroom, Hunter links his computer engineering lessons to the real-life world of robotics. For instance, he launched a Grade 9 lesson on extreme engineering with a discussion about the big news that scientists recently landed a space probe on a comet. Short videos from the European Space Agency reveal the technical stunts required to get the orbiter off the ground. When students sit down later to draw a model of a machinery plate with SolidWorks, a computer-aided design application, he reminds them that they’re using the same software as manufacturers around the globe. “I try to connect them to what’s going on in the world so they realize why they’re learning this stuff.”
One way he builds critical thinking skills is by whipping out his famous problem of the week. That day he asked the students to figure out how to measure four gallons of water using unmarked three- and five-gallon jugs (“Wait, everyone knows what gallons are, right?”). It’s the kind of question that demands equal parts logic and creativity. Robotics members get plenty of experience muscling through real-life brainteasers during the design/build phase.
At last year’s season-opening tournament, the pit crew got some unexpected practice thinking on their feet when they discovered their robot wasn’t working. Because of on-site changes made that morning to improve performance (which is permitted, and common practice), the machine kept missing its target with a ball. While parents were sweating on the sidelines, wondering if the team would have to pull out, their daughters and sons adopted the calm demeanour of their unflappable teacher and started to problem solve the situation. They checked the robot’s power, communications and software systems. Through brainstorming and testing, they tackled each snag and then moved to the next. Not only did the team get the robot functioning, they clinched the competition. “That kind of continuous evaluation, that’s what’s important in education, in the workplace and in life,” says Trish Muchynski, whose teens decided to transfer out of another board to take part in Hunter’s program.
Budding engineers and programmers may have taken centre stage that day, but the team welcomes all kinds of talents. Aspiring marketers promote the team and its events. The computer-savvy help update the 2056.ca website. The business-minded take on sponsorship. The other day, for example, a girl cold-called the president of a local company, pitched him the program and convinced him to donate $500. “What classroom is going to give you that kind of experience?” Hunter asks.
His crew is good at asking for help, but they’ve also been recognized for giving back to the community. That day at the meeting, Hunter welcomed a guest — a teacher starting robotics at a nearby school. He had no trouble recruiting volunteers to help the fledgling group, and he sent the teacher away with a box of parts. They also run demonstrations at every school pep rally and BBQ. On weekends, members spark interest in STEM by offering LEGO robotics workshops at the local library. Outside of robotics, these teens run clothing and food drives, and have raised thousands of dollars for charities, including one for childhood cancers after one of their schoolmates died of the disease. Such efforts landed them the prestigious Chairman’s Award from FIRST for being a role model at inspiring respect and honour for science and technology. “The volunteering habits they start now will be with them for a long time,” says Hunter.
So will their appreciation for lifelong learning and mentorship, because both are coded into the team’s culture. Senior students are expected to pass along knowledge to younger ones. And everyone learns from the group’s mentors. Nine graduates from Team 2056 help coach the teens, some returning home from university on weekends to assist. The rest of the mentors are professionals who contribute industry expertise. Who exactly are these professionals? They’re the students’ parents.
Hunter started robotics to nurture a shared hobby with his own teenagers (his son is now a mentor; his daughter, who is in Grade 12, is also on the team). The crew relies on families for everything from technical knowledge to chauffeuring to approaching restaurants to feed the group when they’re working until 9 p.m. “It’s golden,” says Hunter. “The team gets mentors, and parents get to share their skills while staying involved with their children and their education.” The teacher remembers one boy exclaiming when his dad, an engineer at GM, solved a construction challenge using the Pythagorean theorem. “It’s powerful to see a son learn something from his dad, and to see him realize that’s why we learn math formulas,” says Hunter. “This is why I do it.”
The teens get as much out of robotics as Hunter and their parents do. One gifted boy resisted joining the team until Grade 11 for fear of being labelled a geek. When he finally did, he thrived on the challenge and hands-on learning, and blossomed under the wing of the seniors and mentors. “Not only did robotics help him make a career decision [he’s now studying engineering], but being a part of a group that accepted him really boosted his confidence and drew out his social skills,” says his mom, Cynthia Mech.
Robotics isn’t just a magnet for academically inclined students. Mech, who is also the parent liaison for the team and a steering committee member, recalls another boy who was struggling academically and socially. He found his place within the crew as a videographer. Applying his interests gave him the thrust he needed to graduate and move on to college. “If he didn’t have robotics,” she says, “I don’t know where he’d be today.”
The OCT featured in this department has been recognized with a national teaching award and exemplifies the high standards of practice to which the College holds the teaching profession.
Stan Hunter, OCT, won’t reveal every Team 2056 secret, but he’ll happily share his blueprint for building a winning crew.
Before you commit to starting a robotics team, attend an event to pick up inspiration and information. “That’s what got me hooked; seeing what it was all about,” says Hunter. Check out what’s coming up on the calendar at firstroboticscanada.org.
LEARN FROM THE BEST
Look to an established team in your area for help. You won’t be starting from scratch and you’ll reduce what can be a very steep learning curve. Experienced teams can share information on building milestones and targets, where to buy materials, etc.
Get really good at one aspect of robotics, then tackle other goals. Team 2056 excelled at the technical stuff — building, programming and operating — before they went after the Chairman’s Award. Other teams win for team spirit, entrepreneurship or industrial safety.
The students on Team 2056 are so keen to help others that they’ve created a 101 manual for robotics, to share their best practices. Visit 2056.ca and click “resources” to have a look. For answers to technical questions, browse the forums at chiefdelphi.com.
For more information on how to get started and lead your team to victory, check out Professionally Speaking’s previously published feature “About More Than Robots” at bit.ly/17YNKbl.