Culver Robotics Club a Winner in First Year

Teams from the Culver School robotics club placed first and fifth in an invitational competition with teams from three other local schools on Jan. 16. Not bad for a program that didn’t even exist a year ago.

“Having a robotics club at Culver was a hopeful vision at the beginning of this school year,” said Culver Principal Peggie Maniscalco. “Thanks to a motivated coach and bright, excited students it has already become a reality. We are barely halfway through the school year and Culver already has two competition robots. We have hosted and competed in our first robotics contest with neighboring schools and the Culver teams performed superbly.”

That invitational was a lead-up to a full-scale regional competition in which teams from nine area schools will face off March 6 at Lincoln Junior High School in Skokie.

The Culver robotics teams are coached by Erin Godoy, a math instructional specialist who also teaches 7th grade STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, mathematics) classes.

“My principal came to me at the end of last year and said, ‘We’re changing the schedule for next year, and because of your math and science background we’d like you to teach the automation and robotics course to the 7th graders. And ... we would also like for you to start a robotics club. At that moment I thought to myself, ‘Wow, that’s exciting — and what do I do first to get started?’”

To prepare for the STEAM classes, Godoy took intensive training in robotics and automation instruction over the summer. After school started, she went to a meeting at Niles West High School, where she discussed ideas with other Niles Township middle school teachers.

One of those teachers — Therese Block from Lincoln Junior High — proposed a robotics competition. Maniscalco mentioned that idea at a principals’ meeting and other local school leaders voiced interest. Four schools, including Culver, were ready in time for the invitational, but all nine Niles Township elementary districts are expected to compete on March 6.

Using materials and a competition format from VEX Robotics, the Culver robotics club began to get ready. Godoy developed a curricular plan “for where we needed to be by when,” based on the Project Lead the Way formula. Project Lead the Way is a nonprofit organization that produces STEM educational materials and stresses hands-on activities, problem-solving, creative thinking and collaboration with other students.

Eight Culver students — seven boys and one girl — joined the club in this first year. They split into two teams and collaborated on robot designs. As Godoy explained, they followed a typical process. “They designed prototypes, built them and coded them to respond to a controller, set up an arena, tried out their robots, were disappointed when they failed, made changes and tried again. If an arm wasn’t long enough or the turning radius was too wide, they figured out what they could do to make it work.”

When one team encountered problems during the last practice, the students fixed the problem and used it as motivation to make their final robot even better. Now, the Culver teams are gearing up for the upcoming regional event.

“When this started, it was overwhelming to think about,” Godoy said. “But things fell into place once school started and we had a vision. What these students have accomplished has been pretty amazing for year one. As a result there’s a lot of interest in the school. We hope to expand the program next year, including more girls, and make it even better.”

Said Maniscalco, “This has surpassed what I was hoping for in the way of excitement and involvement from our students. I am so proud of our club.”