A Barrie high school is going to be taken over by robots this month.
Students from Barrie’s Eastview and Bear Creek secondary schools, Orillia Secondary School, Banting Memorial High School in Alliston and Collingwood Collegiate Institute have been hard at work this semester building, programming and rebuilding robots in preparation for the sixth annual Robotics 'Balloon Battle' competition scheduled for Dec. 20 at Eastview.
The event, organized by a group of Simcoe County District School Board computer engineering and robotics teachers, is returning for the first time since 2019.
Unlike some robot competitions, where the goal is to destroy your opponent’s robot, the goal of this competition is for students to design and operate robots, with the goal of popping the most number of balloons in a certain window of time.
“We are trying to keep the robots in good, working shape so that we can use them for many years. They have 18 inches of spikes they can place anywhere on the robot … that’s the only thing that can pop the balloons. They have to design systems that will pop those balloons and they get two points for popping a balloon and they get one point for every balloon they have left,” explained Shawn McClinchey, a computer engineering and computer technology teacher at Eastview.
McClinchey is one of the teachers helping to organize the event, telling BarrieToday the competition started about six years ago as a way to give students the opportunity to compete without breaking the bank.
“There are computer engineering classes and robot clubs, and it’s a way to get the kids out on a bit of a cheaper competition. Some of these robot competitions are very expensive, so this is a way that we found we could get a lot of people participating together," he said.
The event, McClinchey explained, not only helps to create some fun entertainment for the students, but it’s also a built in learning opportunity for kids of all levels of ability.
“It’s not so advanced … so it could be your first time building a robot for a competition, or it could be your third time,” he said, adding the robots are built in class as part of the curriculum. “They are really excited about it. They have to do daily logs for me, but they’re very happy to put the work into it and to come up with different designs to compete.”
Students are enjoying the process of learning how things work, McClinchey added, but noted along with that comes some frustration when things don’t quite work as planned.
“The motors aren’t working, or they’re not working the way they want them to ... so they have to take it apart and rebuild it, but on the whole they are all really enjoying it,” he said. “It’s a clearly defined goal which helps. Sometimes, you get into the robots and I say I want them to build something … but that’s more open-ended. This is more focused and they have a definite goal, rules to follow and they are excited about competing.”
During the competition, McClinchey said the students will work in teams with students from other schools, which means they have to learn how to collaborate with each other and learn a variety of different strategies that they can use during the competition.
This is the first time the competition will take place since 2019, and all involved are excited to get back to it.
“Hands-on learning, it’s so wonderful and it’s very exciting for me, but I am mostly happy for the kids,” he said. “Every one of the kids said they’re so happy to be back in the class. We can program these robots virtually, but it’s not the same experience.”
Building a robot for this type of competition, he noted, takes approximately four weeks of classes — or 20 to 40 hours, depending on the number of times it’s taken apart and rebuilt.