There are plenty of misconceptions when it comes to robotics.
But those myths were quickly dispelled as one toured Orillia’s Patrick Fogarty Catholic Secondary School this weekend during the Orillia VRC/VIQ Qualifying Tournament.
The school’s cafeteria and gymnasium were brimming with teams featuring boys and girls of all ages as they worked together to not only perfect their creation, but also to enjoy the camaraderie that’s a big part of the robotics scene.
“Most people think you’re just working by yourself,” said Creemore’s Boden Dobbes, 12, as he and his fellow teammates, dressed in orange T-shirts, tested their robot to ensure success in the competitive portion of the day.
“I’ve been doing this for four years and really like it. I want to be a robotics engineer or a programmer when I get older.”
While the fine-tuning and testing was conducted in the school’s cafeteria, the actual competition occurred in the adjacent gymnasium where teams competed head-to-head in a game called Turning Point that saw students lead their robots via remote control through a series of obstacles that ranged from flags and cups to balls and platforms.
“We have a mix of students from Grades 6 or 7 all the way up to Grade 12,” said event co-organizer and Patrick Fogarty teacher Jeff Cole. “It’s so exciting for the students involved.”
Cole said that while students work on what he calls ‘hard skills’ relating to math and science, they’re also developing their ‘soft skills’ by becoming stronger communicators who are able to work under pressure and as part of a team.
“It gives them a well-rounded experience. It’s really a combination of a competition and collaboration. We like to call it a ‘collabition.’”
Added Patrick Fogarty Grade 10 student Aidan Greatrix: “I’ve always been interested in robots and this is really great because we’re building it from scratch. We started working on this in April.”
While Saturday attracted 20 teams vying for one of four provincial qualification spots, Sunday features an additional 28 teams of younger competitors all striving to show off their robotics prowess.
Patrick Fogarty teacher Mike Milliard said students in both elementary and secondary school have taken a keen interest in robotics because they view it as part of the here and now rather than how past generations likely saw it as a distant future proposition.
“They see what’s happening today with autonomous cars, autonomous trucks,” he said, adding the number of sponsors signed up for this year’s offering shows that industry also sees the link between students interested in robotics and their future workforce.
“I can only see this (competition) getting bigger in the future. We had 11 teams last year in an unofficial tournament.”
Milliard noted that what’s become known as the school’s Robotics Academy has grown from two teams last year to about nine this time around when feeder elementary schools are factored in. He’s also slated speak to Orillia council about robotics in the new year.
“They want to know how they can help the robotics community develop and how we might be able to work with them.”
While robotics has established strong roots at Patrick Fogarty, it’s much the same story throughout the county.
Grade 10 Collingwood student Paige Tsui is part of a Creemore-based, all-girls team.
“I saw an ad in the newspaper looking for new members and I was looking for a group to join,” said Tsui, 15. “I thought it looked interesting.”
The five-member team meets every Monday and most Thursdays throughout the year to determine and then proceed with the next phase of their robotics project.
“We build the robot and we strategize,” added teammate and fellow Grade 10 student Sarah Crawford. “We also code it since coding is important to overall process.”
Collingwood’s Connor Hill, 13, started dabbling in robotics at home and now also repairs drones on the side.
“A lot of people think it’s extremely difficult,” said Hill, a student at Jean Vanier Catholic High School, “but if you played with Lego as a kid you can probably do this.”
And while Elliot Gagnon attends St. Peter’s Catholic Secondary School in a city (Barrie), he is part of a robotics team based in rural Simcoe County (Oro Station).
“We currently have four on the team and most of us are from Barrie,” the 15-year-old Grade 10 student explained. “It’s very fun and we learn about robotics, programming and STEM education.
“The biggest misconception some people have is that it’s boring, but it’s actually pretty intense.”
And while some are relatively new to the robotics game, others are now savvy veterans.
“I’ve been working in robotics since the third grade,” said Richmond Hill Grade 10 private school student Nick Lupu. “This gives us a chance to work on something new.
“There’s a lot of freedom. The biggest misconception is that we’re trying to take over the world with our robots.”