RoboJackets extend metallic hand to high schoolers


Paper brochures, e-mails from admissions and information sessions may not always persuade prospective students to consider Tech as the college of choice, but what about the opportunity to learn engineering skills while building robots with Tech’s engineering students?

The student organization RoboJackets offers a hands-on perspective of engineering as well as a unique view of what high school students would have access to as Tech students. During the fall semester, RoboJackets hosts Technology Enrichment (TE) Sessions, taught by its members—primarily Stefan Posey, fifth-year AE and president of RoboJackets, and Andy Bardagjy, fifth-year EE and project leader of TE Sessions as well as several professors, like Dr. Wayne Book, for high school students.

“In 2001, [RoboJackets] started hosting these seminars called TE Sessions. We meet once a week for about three hours, and we go through basic physics and mathematics to teach [students] how to build one of the smaller robotics kits,” said Bardagjy.

The primary goal of TE Sessions are to give students from over 30 high schools an edge as teams in FIRST Robotics—a national non-profit organization that hosts robotics competitions for grade-school students—with college-level education and personal-level contact with engineering students. The majority of participants are high school students, but some exceptional middle school students have attended sessions as well; Posey said there is one group that started in middle school and are still participating.

Each week, teams from over ten high schools pack into a room with several RoboJackets members for about three hours. First, a half-hour lecture by a member covers the day’s activities, and then they start a lab-style activity where students build and test with Lego Mindstorms. Since the students are from all four levels of high school, some students may not have experience with physics or higher-level mathematics; and creating a challenge

“There this huge range of experience [among students]; some of them are Linux kernel hackers and some come in with algebra one,” Bardagjy said, “We have to hit somewhere in there to keep everyone engaged.”

One of the ways they meet that goal is by offering an advanced track, started three years ago, in addition to their general track of sessions. Students who have no exposure in robotics are encouraged to start with the general sessions, but as they become more experienced they move into the advanced sessions.

“Often when [RoboJackets] gets new members, they really want to do this but they’re not too familiar with robotics. We usually steer them into these programs… and both work with high school students and learn how to do basic work in robotics,” Bardagjy said.

The advanced track usually consists of college-level material similar to special-topics classes at Tech, like robotics-specific programming and computer vision; college students, especially unexperienced RoboJackets members, have also participated in the advanced sessions alongside high school students.

“We also have a competition at the end of the sessions, which is open to all the teams [who participated in TE Sessions]. It’s hosted by [RoboJackets] and the College of Computing, and this past year I had a speaker from General Motors come and give a talk about hybrid engineering,” Posey said.

RoboJackets hosted the annual FIRST Robotics Competition kickoff event this January at the Ferst Center, attracting over 40 FIRST teams from the Southeast. Of the teams present, 14 participated in the RoboJackets’ workshops to receive mechanical and strategical advice and experience for the competition ahead.

Since moving to the lab format of TE Sessions, RoboJackets have started a project to compile a workbook that, once completed, will serve as a guideline for the sessions’ organization and content. It is expected to include introductory and advanced topical information as well as associated activities for the labs.

Given the price tag on enough hardware to teach students with expensive robotics kits, operate and maintain heavy machinery and to fund Robojackets’ own activities and projects, nearly the entire budget is covered by corporate sponsorships.

Robojackets also competes in Robocup, Intelligent Ground Vehicle Competition and Battlebots. In Robocup, a team builds five coffee can-size robots to play soccer; in Intelligent Ground Vehicle Competition, a team designs, builds and programs a fully autonomous robot to navigate an obstacle course; in Battlebots, a team builds a robot that simply destroys and survives the efforts of competitor robots.

A top priority of RoboJackets’ officers is recruiting new members, and TE Sessions alumni are a major component of that recruitment of high school students participating in TE Sessions and subsequently attending Tech after graduation. One past member now serves on the FIRST Board for game design. However, with the Tin Building—where RoboJackets bases their operations and host workshops for FIRST teams—facing demolition and relocation off-campus, maintaining the same level of recruitment from high schools and Tech freshmen may be difficult.

“A big problem is our members operate a odd hours, and not having a place on campus is going to make it difficult to recruit people,” Bardagjy said, “I think all the teams are concerned about what’s going to happen to the organization if we can’t recruit more members. As a freshman, I wouldn’t want to walk through Home Park to join a club I’m not sure about.”