Teacher watches robotics student operate device
Teacher Brian Wetzel watches as students use their robots’ claws to grasp plastic cubes and drop them on their opponents’ side of a game board. The timed competition lasts two minutes. Credit: Larry Gibbs

CENTERBURG – The excitement in the robotics classroom at Centerburg High School reflects the central theme of Brian Wetzel’s teaching.

Twenty-one students in grades nine through 12 are using the VEX Robotics platform to learn how to program and control their four-wheel robots.

“My goal is to implement a mentality to always improve,” Wetzel said. “It’s more about the process, rather than success or failure. No matter the objective, it’s the process that matters – test and retest.

“I tell the kids it’s okay to fail. Failure is just as important as success. Failure occurs only in the absence of redesign.”

A student adjusts the drive program on his robot before a competition to grasp plastic rings and drop them onto towers on a floor game board. (Photo courtesy of Larry Gibbs)

Wetzel has been the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) teacher at Centerburg for 10 years. His realm of instruction has encompassed computer technology, web design and engineering design principles. This semester’s robotics class is Centerburg’s first venture into VEX technology.

VEX Robotics sells educational robotics equipment and programs to schools throughout the world.

On its website, VEX describes its products and skills competitions by proclaiming, “It’s as close to real-world engineering as a student can get.”

The VEX plastic construction system allows students to build robots using robot brains, batteries, motors, sensors, wheels, gears, pulleys and other components.

Wetzel’s semester-only elective class is essentially an introduction to the VEX platform.

Students program their robots to move forward and backward by remote control while using the robots’ arms and claws to grasp, move and lift plastic objects. While it might look like simple play, the exercises have serious learning objectives.

“For example,” Wetzel said, “one of the large game boards on the floor has three towers at each end. The object is for students to use their robots to grab plastic rings and drop them onto the towers – as many as possible – within two minutes.

“The middle tower among the three is taller than the arms that came on the robots.”

Students had to change the programming to extend the arms and reach the height of the taller towers.

Teacher Brian Wetzel stands beside a shelving unit, dubbed “the garage,” where students store their robots after class. (Photo courtesy of Larry Gibbs)

On another game board students use claws on their robot arms to grasp as many plastic cubes as possible and drop them across a divider onto their opponent’s side. The colors of the cubes determine points.

“Make any last-minute adjustments to your driver programs,” Wetzel called out across the classroom just before competitions began.

Results were projected onto a wall.

Centerburg received $3,000 to purchase VEX equipment through a donation from Brian and Cindy Montgomery, a local couple who participate in America’s Farmers Grow Communities, a Bayer fund program.

Those funds remained after the Montgomerys donated to robotics at Danville Elementary last school year.

Wetzel hopes to expand Centerburg’s robotics program next year but that will depend on available funds and scheduling.

“Our hope is that we can expand next year in the classroom and possibly have an after-school robotics club. My goal is to get to robotics competition with other schools,” he said.

Superintendent Ryan Gallwitz supports expansion of the program.

“Ohio is becoming the Silicon Valley of the Midwest with the billions of dollars being invested by tech companies just a few miles south of Centerburg,” Gallwitz said. “Our students need exposure to a robust computer science curriculum. Robotics can help with that.

“Our resources are limited so we are going to have to get really creative to make it happen.”

Sophomores Gage Putnam and Rigby Arter hope they can build on the skills they are developing in the first-year robotics class.

“I would like to continue in robotics in 11th and 12th grades,” Putnam said. “I want to be able to do more to control the robots by changing gear ratios and other complex changes.”

Arter agreed.

“I have always been interested in technology. Working with these robots is challenging and fun. I’m definitely interested in continuing with robotics classes,” he said.

While Wetzel’s robotics class this year is first-semester only, it counts toward math credits and a technology seal on seniors’ diplomas.

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