Local Donation Brings Robotics to MHS

By Matthew Ferreira 
Staff writer

MIDDLEBORO — Since its start a few years ago, the robotics club of Middleborough High School has attracted students with an interest in the STEM (science technology engineering and mathematics) areas, but unfortunately, the club has never had the materials to actually try out any of the ideas its members gather to talk about. Now, thanks to a donation made recently by Middleboro-based Sager Electronics, not only is that about to change in time for the coming schoolyear, but it is the hope of school officials that this will bring the district one step closer to integrating robotics into regular curriculum.

The connection that brought about the donation was through a Sager employee and Middleboro resident who also happens to be an MHS football mom.

“(Marketing operations support representative for Sager) Debbie Chipman is the one who reached out to our high school science and technology department head Scott Nelson about Sager Electronics making a donation that would support a robotics program,” said MPS Director of Secondary Education for STEM Dr. Melanie Gates. “Her son Brendan Chipman was a senior this year and he was quarterback on the football team. Mr. Nelson is an assistant coach and Mrs. Chipman was always super involved with supporting the football team, so through that relationship we’ve now formed this partnership between her company and the school.”

Gates says the plan, and hope, is that Sager’s $5,000 donation will serve as a catalyst that, with some additional funds, will stretch beyond the extra-curricular robotics club and begin moving toward robotics being worked into current STEM classes.

“We have wanted to start a formal robotics program for some time, but with balancing our priorities we have always had to table this initiative,” she said. “Our first action step will be to equip our robotics after school club with equipment to actually build robots. We will use the after school robotics club to help us design our curriculum for launching a robotics elective for the 2017-2018 school year. Our next step would then be to test the waters with starting a robotics competition team and compete with FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a national non-profit organization that aims to motivate students to be leaders in STEM.”

The donation from Sager will be used to purchase Arduino robotics/electronics platforms. Gates described the Arduino platform as a board-like interface students can use to attach electrical components, switches, etc. to create not only robots but whatever their imaginations can come up with using the available materials.

“Sager produces circuit boards, motors, and all kinds of pieces you’d use to create not only robots but all kinds of things. So for example, a kid could attach some LED lights and a speake?r to a timing component and create an alarm,” she said.

“Our next big item needed to support a robotics program is a laser cutter/engraver,” Gates continued. “The purpose of the laser is for the production of non-electrical components for? the robot. Students will be able to design such things as the body and wheels for the robot using 3-dimensional software and then program the laser to cut out their design. We’d use luan plywood as our medium with the laser since it is relatively inexpensive and will be easy to cut with the laser.”

With the new offering of a Lego Mindstorm robotics course at Nichols Middle School this upcoming schoolyear as well, Gates says the district is closer than ever to having a multi-year continuum of robotics curriculum within the district.

“This year we’ll be offering Lego Mindstorm at the middle school, so as kids come up in robotics within the next year or two, if they really like it they’d be able to continue with robotics in high school. It would be really awesome to have this as a 6-12 thing,” Gates said.

Senior Vice President of Marketing for Sager, Faris Aruri, says Sager has been providing support to school robotics programming since 2011, after hearing keynote speaker Dean Kamen, proprietor of DEKA Research & ?Development in New Hampshire, speak about robotics and the FIRST program, which he founded.FIRST.png

“It was interesting the way he spoke to us. He said that our society celebrates sports and entertainment and we’re all part of that but there’s too much emphasis there and he wanted to put together a program where the kids worked in certain week periods just as if it was a sport — like football or basketball. They build a robot then they compete locally, regionally and then ultimately nationally,” Aruri said. “Since 2011 our company and all of us in the association have searched for ways to contribute in our own way. So traditionally for us the last few years we’ve provided free products that go to the kids. We also sponsored a pre-high school team when we had a chance. So this year Deb Chipman… suggested that we do some work right in our own backyard. So that’s what’s motivating us and we’re happy to know that you’re going to put a program in and we hope to see if flourish."

Superintendent of schools Brian Lynch said he hopes that Sager’s recent action marks the start of a working relationship between the company and schools.

“I’m happy we’ve begun what I think may be the beginning of a successful partnership between the school district and Sager Electronics. Aside from their sizable donation, they made it clear that they wish to partner with us as we establish a robotics program,” Lynch said. “We’ve had a robotics club at the high school the past couple of years and there’s been interest in that, and I think as the years progress we’re certainly going to be looking to get more and more involved with robotics. There are some well-established programs in various schools and I think we want to move toward that end. Careers in STEM are blossoming. Everything I’ve seen and read certainly indicates that this is the way to go.”

Gates says one of the things she finds most exciting about robotics is its dynamic appeal.

“This has the potential to pull in an art student interested in the aesthetic design of robots. A student who’s interested in engineering is going to be drawn in by the functionality aspect — problem-solving, finding different ways to achieve a result, and there’s the programming aspect for the student who likes working behind a computer,” she said. “And the piece that I really think drives kids to robotics is the fact they get to take their idea, build it, and then be able to hold this physical object in their hand that they thought up and made from start to finish. I think that’s a really powerful piece for kids.”