The buzzer shrieks. The crowd roars. Brewster Academy students and advisors hug each other in wild celebration. Their robotics team, Pi-Rho-Tech, has just qualified for the quarterfinals in the New England District Granite State FIRST Robotics Competition.
BY Linda Shenton Matchett
The buzzer shrieks. The crowd roars. Brewster Academy students and advisors hug each other in wild celebration. Their robotics team, Pi-Rho-Tech, has just qualified for the quarterfinals in the New England District Granite State FIRST Robotics Competition. No easy accomplishment for any group but highly unusual for a rookie team. Thanks to faculty advisor Eric Hunt and staff mentors Chris Hafner and Wes Matchett, however, the students who participated knew they were up for the challenge. For the quarterfinal match, Pi-Rho-Tech was pitted against the number one ranked team and lost, but because of their abilities, they were later selected to partner with a qualifying team in the New England District Pine Tree Event. They won the first round, but fell during the second and third.
Founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen, FIRST’s (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) mission is “to inspire young people to be science and technology leaders and innovators, by engaging them in exciting mentor-based programs that build science, engineering, and technology skills that inspire innovation and that foster well-rounded life capabilities including self-confidence, communication, and leadership.”
Surprisingly, FIRST Robotics is not just about robots. “The robots are a vehicle for students to learn import-ant life skills. Kids often come in not knowing what to expect – of the pro-gram nor of themselves,” says Kamen who was Brewster’s 2016 commencement speaker. “They leave, even after the first season, with a vision, with confidence, and with a sense that they can create their own future.”
Matchett is proud of how well the students performed at the March 2017 competition despite being“behind the curve.” Most teams commence preparation at the beginning of the school year. Brewster’s inaugural team didn’t kick off until December 2016, putting the students two months behind their opponents. Following the success and enthusiastic interest of this first team, a robotics club was born and the IT mentors decided the first assignment for this year would be to create an “escape room.”
When students returned to school in September, 12 students signed up for the club and faculty advisor Scott Domingos and mentors Hafner and Matchett worked with students one on one and in groups to create the theme and design and build an escape room in the Bobcat Den located in the lower level of the Estabrook.
THE ORIGIN OF ESCAPE ROOMS
Part game, part theater, and part team-building exercise, escape rooms originated in Japan in 2007 when Takao Kato of the Kyoto Publishing Company developed “Real Escape Game.” Slow to gain popularity, there were only 59 games worldwide by 2015. The following year, the industry exploded, and cur-rent reports indicate there are more than 5,000 rooms around the globe with approximately 50 new rooms opening each month.
During an escape room experience, participants are locked in a room for a specific time frame (typically 60 to 90 minutes) and must follow clues and solve puzzles to find the key that allows them to exit. Prior to entering the game, players are given the rules, the plot outline, and an introduction about how they arrived at the scene. Many rooms include multiple stages that must be cleared to advance through the story. Themes vary from time travel and steampunk to archaeological hunts and spy missions. The possibilities are endless.
Excitement of the rooms has caught on within academia, and over the last year there has been exponential growth in educational escape rooms, with teachers adapting the concept to fit the needs of their students in both physical and digital learning environments. Rooms have been used to teach nearly every subject including literature, history, and civics. Integrating other subjects, clues are cracked by decoding verbs, performing math problems, or solving scientific puzzles.
The student creators of the Brewster escape room have learned – and relied on – critical thinking, problem-solving, leadership, team-work, and communication skills as they collaborate on the project. “The skills I learn being part of robotics validate what I’ve learned in the classroom,” said last year’s team captain Logan Young ’18 (Palo Alto, California).
Logan’s previous high school had a FIRST team, but to his dismay the waiting list was bigger than the team itself, and he couldn’t participate. Because of his familiarity with FIRST, he leapt at the opportunity to join robotics at Brewster. Logan, who has interned in the Brewster IT Office, has always enjoyed science and math. He loves to build things and would like to be an engineer. His favorite part of robotics is “coming up with the design and then seeing how it compares to what the project ends up being.”
Like Logan, sophomore Youssef “Joe” Soliman’s former school in Ras Tanura, Saudi Arabia, also had a robotics team but unlike Logan, Joe had a spot on the team. His favorite part about being in robotics is that it is a “friends’ group. There’s no tension. Everyone likes each other and teases each other.” Passionate about the subject, he also plans to go into engineering.
A self-professed technical novice, senior Fred Liautaud from Champaign, Illinois, is interested in art but saw his friends doing robotics and thought it sounded fun. He likes learning about technology and doing the hands-on work necessary to build the room. Sophomore Jack Reasoner from Sandy Hook, Connecticut, also enjoys the building and is excited to see what the robots will look like. “I’m not a sports guy, so the opportunity to participate in this is great. It fills a niche, and I’m glad Brewster offered it.”
One of three girls who joined the club, Napatsawan “Namwan” Pharino, is from Udon Thani, Thailand. She plans to study food science in college, but wanted to try something new. “I’ve never done anything like this before.”
The room was finished in time to be added to the list of the annual Winter Carnival contests. Teams of eight students, representing each academic team, competed to see which team could escape in the least amount of time. Logan assured any-one worried about whether it is com-plicated to beat an escape room “that when it’s broken down step by step, it can be done. You don’t have to be a technical person to do the room.”
You may not have to be technical to beat the room but collaboration and working step by step proved key and the only team to make it out of the escape room within the allotted 30 minutes was the Class of ’18 team – and they did it with 10 minutes to spare. Their secret to escaping?
“They worked independently and cooperatively at the same time,” explained Matchett, who ran the room while each team was within it. “And if one group needed something, the larger group responded as a whole and this was key to their success.”
With the completion of the escape room in early January, robotics students turned their focus on preparations for the FIRST Robotics Competition in late March. In addition to building the robot, tasks included designing the team logo and T-shirt, programming and testing the robot, building a sample arena in which to practice for the competition, and acting as safety officer or team captain.
The 2018 season kicked off the first week in January when FIRST revealed the specifics of Power Up – the season’s engineering challenge – and competition teams received their Kickoff Kits with materials, components, and limited instructions to design, build, program, and test their robots by February 20. Local and regional competitions began the following week with championship meets held during March and April during which a national winner will emerge.
There is no escaping the impact that the FIRST Robotics Competition and the associated Brewster escape room project has had on Brewster students. According to Scott Nicholson, a professor of game design and development at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada, and widely considered the global expert on escape rooms, “Unlike other forms of games where the player controls an avatar … escape rooms place the player directly into the game,” he explained in a July 2016 Atlantic magazine article. “Because of that, the effects of experiential learning can be more effective, as there are fewer barriers between the player and the experience.”
Confirming Nicholson’s remark, a study released in April 2017 indicates that 87 percent of FIRST participants plan to enroll in more challenging math or science courses. In addition, participants are over two and half times more likely to enroll in an engineering course in their freshman year of college. Equally important is that more than 75 percent of students reported gains in their communication skills with 95 percent reporting gains in time management, 93 percent in conflict resolution, and 90 percent in problem-solving, all crucial skills required to navigate college and adulthood.
Learning is not a spectator sport, and Brewster robotics is one of many ways Brewster is ensuring our students are not on the sidelines.
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Linda Shenton Matchett is the front of house and catering manager for dining services and is a published author of historical fiction.