Robotics competitions teach Catholic homeschoolers engineering and much more

By Michelle McDaniel

North Texas Catholic

TEACH Team member Liam O'Flaherty fixes part of robot before the BEST robotics competition on Oct. 27 in Arlington. (NTC/Michelle McDaniel)

ARLINGTON — Middle and high school students mount their homemade robots onto long, multi-colored wooden boards suspended from the floor. At the buzz of the gymnasium’s timer, the robots begin to simulate “cleaning the ocean” by scooping water bottles out of a nearby container while upbeat music plays.

On Oct. 27, T.E.A.C.H. (Texas Association of Catholic Homeschoolers) robotics competed in Cowtown B.E.S.T. (Boosting Engineering, Science, and Technology) Robotics, a nonprofit organization which holds engineering-based competitions for middle and high schoolers.

Teams supported their robot’s driver from the stands and sidelines, cheering. Some teams held large banners or dressed in costumes. A student dressed in a duck costume danced on the sidelines, supporting the competitors of all teams while viewers beat drums and shook homemade shakers.

High school senior Isabel Cobb joined TEACH Robotics her freshman year in high school at the recommendation of a friend who previously worked on the team.

Cobb now holds the position of CEO over the robotics team. The team met at her house to work on the robot for roughly 11 hours a week, but in the few weeks before the presentation, they would see each other for about 40 hours a week.

Through robotics, students such as Cobb have the opportunity to experiment with the STEM field. Working on TEACH inspired Cobb to consider engineering in future pursuits.

“I didn’t think it would really turn into anything, but before that, I knew I had wanted to go into a STEM field but didn’t know which,” she said.

“After getting on the team and seeing what the engineers were doing, I was like, ‘that’s so cool, I want to do that,’ so I applied to engineering schools, and I want to be a mechanical engineer. I never would have found out about it without going through the BEST program,” Cobb continued.

BEST includes a wide range of components within their overall competition which appeal to both STEM and non-STEM focused students.

For part of the competition, students create a mock business and market their business through their engineering notebook which enforces writing about their engineering process. Students also write a research paper to document their process in constructing and programming their robot.

They must put together a marketing booth. Their presentation must mock “sell” their robot to the judges who pretend to be a company, and students must negotiate the terms of a contract if one is made with the judges.

Image courtesy of Kirsten Cobb

Team spirit and sportsmanship with other teams is one of the smallest components of the judging criteria, but students work hard at supporting each other and helping other teams.

When another team asked TEACH for a robot part they needed, parent Andrea Mudd, a parishioner at St. Philip's in Lewisville, was surprised when her middle schooler immediately gave them the part they needed, as they were her child’s competition.

“[My son] looked at me and said, ‘Mom, we’re Catholic before anything else.’ I’m being schooled by my middle schooler,” Mudd said.

The team holds this perspective in all that they do, attempting to “integrate our Catholic faith” according to Isabel Cobb’s mother, Kirsten, a parishioner at St. Philip's in Lewisville.

The team meets not only to work on the robot, but also to reach out to the community through service activities such as teaching children about robotics at Little Apostles Preschool, helping students in impoverished areas with homework, and other activities which included teaching peers and younger children about STEM.

“It was really exciting to inspire them. You see that thirst for knowledge and the thirst for something new in their lives that they’ve never seen before,” Mudd said.

Encouraging the Catholic faith to the homeschool students in the team, TEACH prays with a different patron saint each year. This year they called on their patron saint, St. Macrina the Younger, to pray for them after every prayer.

Anthony Robbins, one of the programmers, works on the team as “chaplain” to make sure the students pray before every meeting. He leads prayers and provides spiritual guidance for his peers.

Although the team works to create and program a functioning robot in order to win the competition, they work to incorporate their faith, allowing it to permeate every aspect of their work.

“The prayers are led by the boys on the team because we’re trying to foster the spirit of men being the spiritual leaders of their families or being a spiritual leader in religious vocations, and so the boys lead the prayers, and [Anthony] helps them,” Mudd said.

“My son was very shy about being one of the leaders, but Anthony has worked with him and helped him so that he’s now stepping up without being prompted… That’s exactly what you hope for and pray for as a mom. That’s beautiful,” she continued.

ARLINGTON — Middle and high school students mount their homemade robots onto long, multi-colored wooden boards suspended from the floor. At the buzz of the gymnasium’s timer, the robots begin to simulate “cleaning the ocean” by scooping water bottles out of a nearby container while upbeat music plays.

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