By Miroslaw Owinski
The stories and legends, and sometimes pure fairy tales of mechanical contraptions (of both devious and benevolent nature) and visionary inventors have woven through the history and literature of Poland, inspiring generations of young people in the Homeland and abroad.
Indeed, before Terminator and Transformers there was Golem IV, a super computer from a science-fiction story by a renowned Polish writer, Stanislav Lem. Even before that, five centuries ago, Mr. Twardowski allegedly made a trip from his hometown Krakow to the Moon, where he lives to this day with his beloved sidekick, turned spider, as his companion. And then there was a Polish legionnaire, Antoni Patek, who pioneered watch-making in Switzerland and eventually established the world’s most famous hand-watch brand.
Perhaps that’s precisely how the story was started that the Turk, the famous and mysterious chess playing machine of that period, was supposedly operated by a Polish officer whose legs were amputated, and who was hidden inside the machine. And more recently, there were three Polish cryptologists: Marian Rejewski, Jerzy Różycki and Henryk Zygalski, who broke the code of Enigma, the German ciphering machine in the run up to the WWII. Nowadays, the sophisticated robots and unique devices built by the Polish scientist and engineers fly to other planets and into the outer space.
To keep in tune with such a long and intriguing tradition, the Fr. Józef Dąbrowski Polish Language School in Orchard Lake decided to introduce a robotics outreach program for elementary school-age students. The pilot program started last September thanks to the rock-solid support by the Polish Mission, and is currently offered as a regular extracurricular activity. Our robotics program (VEX IQ) is part of a greater STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) initiative, funded by major charitable organizations (Carnegie-Mellon, Bill and Linda Gates, Robotics Education & Competition Foundation and many corporate sponsors). Students have the opportunity to explore various aspects of the STEM education, based on carefully designed curricula, and have lots of fun in the process. The robots compete locally at scrimmages and matches qualifying for the state finals. Winners of the state finals compete in the world finals at the conclusion of the season. Cranbrook Schools, U of M, MSU and Nissan Technical Center have had the most active and successful teams in the 2013-2014 season. And now, our teams are joining this distinguished league!
There are currently two teams active within the program, “Claws” and “Zeptronics,” comprised of children ages 8 through 11. We meet every Sunday on the Orchard Lake campus to learn about the STEM topics and build robots from the pre-made components. The VEX IQ system was designed to be simple and easy for students to use. Structural pieces snap together and come apart without tools, allowing for quick build times and easy modifications. A variety of gears, wheels and other accessories allows for complete customization of VEX IQ projects and mobile robots. Any combination of up to 12 Smart Port devices, such as motor, gyroscope, and distance and color sensor, can be connected to the Robot Brain, and controlled programmatically or with a remote controller. This advanced system allows for quite elaborate robots and unlimited teaching opportunities.
We started with the basic engineering concepts, such as mass and gravity, torque and simple machines, and then quickly moved to building and testing robots. In the process, it has been fascinating to watch how the individual personalities surface and bubble, leading to tensions and, sometimes, conflicts. So, the program has also been a great opportunity for the children to learn about the conflict resolution, effective communication and negotiation of the best course of action. The goal is that by the end of the season, the students develop an understanding that the teamwork is a prerequisite to a success and infighting leads to destruction and misery. This has also been a truly testing time for the parents, who assist by bringing the young students to Sunday sessions, assist them with the harder aspects of the program and keep them focused and active for two hours. Luckily, all of us involved in the program have learned that to succeed, both the children and adults have to be fully committed and supportive of each other.
Despite all the technical and emotional challenges, our young students and their robots have successfully competed with more seasoned teams and their sophisticated machines. In December of last year, the team Zeptronics won the Teamwork Challenge and earned the Design Award for their robot at the state qualifying tournament at Cranbrook. This opened the door to the VEX IQ Worlds Championship in Louisville, Kentucky, in April of this year. Initially shaken by the scale of the venue and intimidated by the magnitude of the event itself, they quickly regained their usual fighting spirit and came in sixth in the finals. On top of that, they managed to impress the judges with their robot, programming skills and the game strategy enough to be presented with a special prize, the Think Award. The trip to Louisville was such a life-changing event for both the student and parents, and everyone is ready to go to the very top at the next World Championship in April of 2016!
If you would like to donate to our program, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or give us a call at (248) 366-8728. Either way, Olaf, Kasia, Amelia, Tomek, Tymon, Asia and Marcin are happy to pledge to work and play even harder in the next VEX IQ season!
By Miroslaw Owinski