Youth robotics growing by leaps and bounds in Peel

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MISSISSAUGA – Robotics is growing fast in Peel as schools and community organizations across the province and region continue to embrace and foster an ever-growing youth robotics competition circuit.


Over 400 middle-school students battled for a spot in the upcoming provincial finals over the weekend (Dec. 13) at Rick Hansen Secondary School in one of FIRST Lego League’s (FLL) annual regional qualifying events, with over 80 per cent of the participants from Peel Region school or community-based teams.


John Hobbins, director of FIRST Robotics Canada and founder of the robotics club at Rick Hansen said that registration in FIRST Robotics-affiliated programs in Ontario has nearly doubled this year, with a 47 per cent increase at the high school level and a 44 per cent increase among middle-schoolers.


“They are actually kind of blown away (in the United States) by the growth on this side of the border. They keep asking us what we’re doing differently over here to achieve those kinds of numbers,” said Hobbins.


FIRST Robotics, sponsored by NASA, is broken down into three age groups. The FLL is split into two junior Lego divisions for elementary and middle-school-aged kids, respectively; while the senior-level FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) involves more complicated robots for high-schoolers, aged 14 to 18.


VEX Robotics Competition (VRC), a smaller international robotics league, which follows a similar format to FRC, is also active in the area with several regional schools and independent teams finding success on that circuit also.


Peel students aren’t just showing up in greater numbers – they are excelling – with schools in Mississauga and Brampton fielding world championship-winning teams in both leagues over the last two years.


Team 1241 from Rick Hansen, also known as ‘Theory6,’ beat out more than 4,000 other teams from across the globe to take home the 2013 FRC World Championship in St. Louis, Missouri last year; while the Chingbotics 3560z from Chinguacousy Secondary School in Brampton captured the VRC World Championship earlier this year in Anaheim, California.


“We’ve been very fortunate. Despite (Canada) only making up 6% of involvement (at competitions) compared to the U.S. and rest of the world, we’ve been very successful over the last five years winning multiple world championships,” said Hobbins.


Focusing on teamwork to achieve a common goal rather than trying to destroy your opponent’s robot, proponents of robotics say VEX and FIRST Robotics have a lot to offer young people.


“I think it’s an important part of learning and education. To me, this is so much like real life. It involves teamwork, critical thinking and problem solving… it brings together a lot of skills the students will use for the rest of their lives,” said Cathy Semler, principal at Castlebrooke Secondary School in Brampton.


“It’s not something that the students get out of the regular curriculum,” said Corey Lehman, robotics supervisor at Rick Hansen. “They get a chance to develop many skills ranging from time management, leadership, and social skills through presentations to sponsors and that kind of thing.”


School boards and community leaders seem to be getting the message, with more and more Peel Region schools adding robotics programs and electives to their curriculum, reflecting the growing trend.


“At the elementary level, Peel District School Board this year has allocated significant dollars to entry level robotics,” said Hobbins.


Even the Mississauga Library system has gotten in on the action, working with FIRST Robotics to offer programs in support of independent community-based teams.


Hobbins believes that the upward trend will only continue as many schools, including Rick Hansen, are struggling to meet demand and find themselves being forced to turn students away.


“Just to give you an idea, (at Rick Hansen) they get hundreds of kids trying to sign up, when it get up to 110-120 and they cut it off, kids are so upset they’re crying because they know the value of the experience of being on the team,” he said.

“When you talk about developing the whole child, there is nothing that’s better than this.”


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