Santa Barbara High School’s robotics club has shown it has the right stuff to lasso plastic bottles, pick up tennis balls and roll over obstacles like a tank.
The club builds small robots from basic Erector sets and programmable computers to perform a variety of tasks.
A group of high school and collegiate students, high school teachers, parents and volunteers founded the Computer Programming & Robotics Club in the fall of 2010 after parent Kristen Loomis was told that the high school had no money to create a new curriculum for students interested in engineering, including her son, Peter.
“It’s a matter of a parent who wanted something and wasn’t going to let anything stop her,” said Leonard Zerman, a volunteer programming mentor.
On Thursday, several build teams totaling about 30 Santa Barbara High students presented robots they have been working on for the past seven weeks at the high school’s former auto body and paint shop.
Loomis said the robotics club is essentially the Santa Barbara High community’s response to the brain drain she says the school has experienced since the boom of the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy.
With no computer science or engineering opportunities available at school, the club secured a $10,500 grant from a private, local foundation for 35 students to enroll in an online programming class this summer through K12 academy. She said the real catalysts for the club are the students who worked around school and athletics to pursue their interest.
David Yale, a physics and green technology teacher, was cautious about comparing the new program with Dos Pubelos, which offered its first engineering courses in 2003 and now has a full curriculum.
“I don’t like using the Dos Pueblos program as a reflection tool because it sets them against us,” said the former Navy sailor who operated power plants on nuclear aircraft carriers before becoming a teacher.
Zerman said he wasn’t even considering sending his son anywhere but Dos Pueblos a year ago because of its engineering program. His son is still in junior high but has become involved in the robotics club at SBHS.
Instead of going head to head with the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy, the plan is to try something different by establishing the Green STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) Academy. It would partner a sustainability-driven engineering program with teacher Jose Caballero’s long-standing curriculum in Greenhouse and Environmental Science.
“There’s a legacy of environmentalism in Santa Barbara, so we tapped into that,” said Yale, adding that the long-term goal is to raise money for a new building exclusively for Green STEM with a greenhouse, classrooms, solar panels that the engineering students could work on, and possibly a wind turbine.
Since the club’s inception, Yale and fellow physics teacher Melissa Woods have taken on coordinating the club in their spare time — on top of teaching a full-time load of five courses. The club has gained momentum through donations and volunteerism.
Former principal Mark Capritto provided the club with its first desktops for programming, and Computers for Families donated nine computers to students who didn’t own one. Westmont College faculty members provided LEGO mindstorm kits that can be programmed to build rudimentary robots made of LEGO pieces.
The key development for the club was the recruiting of mentor Eric Sandoz, an engineering doctorate candidate at UCSB. For Sandoz, with two parents as teachers, seeing a discovery on a student’s face is always enjoyable.
“Literally, you can see that light bulb moment,” he said. “You want to help them have as many of those as possible.”
At Thursday’s presentations, Sandoz grilled his students on which obstacles they overcame and how they would make improvements with their robots.
He said that by allowing students to have their hands on all aspects of programming and engineering, their projects will be more creative and they will learn to be independent problem solvers.
Next week the club will visit privately owned, 20-foot “dancing robots” in Santa Barbara. Sandoz said he hopes later trips to UCSB’s robotics lab will help inspire students to study engineering after college.
Yale said he wants to ensure that the robotics club is accessible to all students, particularly those who lost their niche with the Regional Occupational Program. He said one idea is to have the robotics club team up with the Dons Riders, a low-rider bike group, to build something for this year’s Christmas parade.