Valley Charter High School Roboticists Take on the World
By Justin Souza
If there is a bright center of robotics in the valley, Tina Collier is near to its heart.
Collier is the coordinator and instructor of Valley Charter High School’s robotics team, and her classroom looks like an engineering workshop crashed into a Lego store. Miniscule construction equipment – interconnected blocks, brightly-colored controllers, and an array of electrical relays – is scattered across a series of low tables, while
three-foot-tall robots rest half-constructed on counters along the edges.
This is the school-year workshop for students tasked with conceptualizing, sketching, designing, building and programming robots that can operate, both autonomously and under direct control, to accomplish a series of complex tasks. All around us are the raw materials for future competitors in world-spanning tournaments organized by VEX Robotics.
It’s clear from a glance that this is more than your average classroom, and a sampling of laser-cut trophies crowding one wall is good indication that Collier’s junior roboticists are more than the average high school students, as well. In fact, over the last four years, Collier’s students have proved themselves to be some of the best in the world at turning spare parts into well-functioning robots. At this year’s VEX Robotics world tournament, the local Modesto students finished 41st in a pool of teams from nearly 30 countries. At the girls tournament this year, the VCHS team nabbed fourth.
According to Collier, a 15-year veteran of the classroom, this all started as a novel way to engage kids in hands-on learning.
“I got involved in it because I felt like students needed a hands-on activity that integrated analytical thinking and encouraged them to think through an entire process,” Collier said. “Too often in education, we tend to map out lessons for them. In this classroom, we don’t do that.
“I’m hands off,” she added. “I say, ‘Here’s the challenge. You come up with a solution.’ Then I just listen and watch. I really believe it has to be of them in order for them to justify it, to talk about it, to play and to be competitive.”
Collier discovered robotics while training to be a teacher.
“I’ve always been in love with technology, and when I got into robotics, I went all the way to get credentialed,” Collier said. “Since then, I keep branching out to different pieces to keep up with what’s important to the kids.”
For the last four years, that has meant spearheading the VEX Robotics teams here at VCHS while also seeding new teams in local high schools up and down the valley, hosting camps for elementary, middle and high schoolers, mentoring eager roboticists as young as 5 years old, and a lot more. Collier has tapped into a wellspring of interest in robotics that reflects students across the world.
“When I started [teaching robotics], there were less than 100 teams in the United States,” said Collier. “This year, we competed against 12,000 high school teams from across the world, and we expect it to grow to 15,000 this year.”
Part of the reason for this explosive growth is the novel way that the VEX competitions help students learn essential STEM concepts with hands-on projects.
“This is all college stuff,” Collier said. “It’s engineering, science, physics, programming, math. My students get pieces of all of that at every step. The kids don’t even always know they’re getting those lessons, but they grasp it so much more because of the class. And if you can break it down for them after they do it, it turns the light bulbs on.”
Outside the classroom, Collier continues to focus on growing robotics in the Valley. Recently, she has been working with the Girl Scouts to establish STEM camps. She has also pursued tech-minded businesspeople as mentors for her students. Lately, she has been trying to secure a grant to start a VEX league made up of local elementary students.
“My hope is that students who get into the robotics teams young will continue to move forward and bring this to new high schools, just like I hope that my high school students take off and start college programs as well,” Collier said.
And beyond college, she hopes that these students will become the next generation of engineers, roboticists, and scientists.
Collier has high hopes for robotics in the area. All that holds her back, she says, is manpower and money.
“I’m only one person, and we already have a couple hundred kids involved now.” Whether you are a parent, a player in the industry, or just someone interested in helping foster an interest in robotics, Collier encourages you to call and get involved.
“We need people,” Collier said. And in this, at least, it seems the robots will have to rely on us.