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Evelyn Torres-Rangel

Gabrielino High School
California, USA

What do you teach and how old are your students?

I teach Advanced Placement Computer Science AB (11-12th grade), C++ Computer Programming (9-12th), QBASIC Computer Programming (9-12th).  Next year, I will also teach Java Programming.

Did you always want to be a teacher?  Did you ever have a different profession or wish to do something different?

In college, I wanted to be a computer programmer.  I tried summer jobs where I worked in offices.  I found I didn't like the atmosphere of working for a business.  Then I got a job, as a college student, working as a teacher's assistant at Garfield High School in Los Angeles.  There is where I discovered I enjoyed teaching as a profession.

How did you get involved with using robotics in the classroom?  What is the benefit of teaching robotics?

I don't teach robotics in a formal classroom setting.  Students come after school to participate in Botball.  I believe robotics is beneficial because it gives students a chance to apply their programming knowledge to a hands-on, real-life situation.  They see the direct result of their programs.  They become engineers, albeit on a small scale, designing, building, and testing.  Robotics interests a wide range of students, including students who might not otherwise be interested in programming.  I am hoping our participation in Botball will strengthen our programming classes and also encourage girls and other underrepresented minority students to take the programming courses.

What is BotBall?  How does it differ from other robotics programs?

Botball is coordinated by the KISS Institute, located in Norman, Oklahoma.  Students build robots to maneuver around a 4'x8' game board, scoring points by moving around ping pong balls and other items on the game board.  With each Botball kit, students can build 2 robots.  The robots are built with Legos, which many students are already familiar with and the programming they need to know to control the robots is written in a C-like programming language.  The programming commands are relatively easy to learn.  Because of the ease of designing and programming the robots, the students take complete control of their projects.  I give advice, but for the most part, the students are the primary designers.  I know some schools have outside "mentors", i.e. engineers that help with the programming and construction.  But so far, I have not recruited anyone to help.  I like to see what the students can do on their own.  Each year, the Botball game board and game rules change.  Students are given the game rules and game board specifications 6 weeks before the regional competition.  Any team that participates in a regional competition is eligible to participate in the national competition.

What is your robotics program like?  What kinds of kids participate in your program?

I first became involved in Botball in March '01.  I found out about Botball through our MESA Director at CSULA (California State University Los Angeles).  The organizers at the KISS Institute were interested in involving underrepresented minority students in Botball so they went to our MESA director to seek such students.  I went to a one-day Botball teacher-training workshop.  My students and I then had 6 weeks to prepare for the Regional Competition.  I met with the students about 3-4 days a week, for two hours after school and we met every day during spring break.  This year, I started working with the students in October '01, and the students met after school, every Tuesday and Thursday, from 3-5 p.m.  I require Botball students to either be currently enrolled in one of my programming classes or plan on enrolling the following year.  I try to encourage underrepresented minorities to participate.  Our MESA program consists only of underrepresented minorities.  In addition to MESA, at Gabrielino High, we have a math-science club called GEMS (Gabrielino Engineering Math and Science).  This club, as most clubs at Gabrielino, is dominated by Asian students.  So this year, by having a MESA and a GEMS Botball team, I ensure that:

1) every student at Gabrielino has an opportunity to be in Botball, and

2) at least half of the students will be underrepresented minorities.

At the same time, I have been able to recruit some girls, even though the majority of Botball students are boys.

What is MESA?

MESA (Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement) is a program designed to encourage underrepresented minority students to pursue careers in math and science.  Because of California Proposition 209, the so-called anti-discrimination law, MESA cannot restrict its program to racial minority students, so currently MESA's policy is to recruit students from disadvantaged backgrounds, including economically disadvantaged.

What do you like best about teaching robotics?  What do you think your students enjoy the most?

Robotics opens up new avenues for students.  For students who have gotten bored with straight programming exercises, applying programming to a robot really gets them excited and involved.  Because of the limited number of robotics kits, the students are forced to work in groups.  A student cannot work alone on a robot ... the other students won't allow it.  And in the end, the students enjoy it as a group activity.  They form strong bonds by the end of the year.  I also think the students enjoy the problem solving aspect of robotics, especially since they can quickly test their conjectures and see the results quite dramatically.

Have you had any of your students move on to careers in engineering or robotics?

Since I have only been involved in Botball for 1½ years, I haven't seen students move on to robotics careers.  However, students have definitely said that Botball has opened their eyes to a possible college major related to robotics and, eventually, to a career.  One of our Botball students, Lupe Talavera, is currently at the Summer Science Program in Ojai, California.  She is one who has said Botball has been very influential.  I also believe Botball helped her get accepted into the Summer Science Program.

What kind of background does a teacher need to have to bring a robotics program to their school or classroom?  Does it require a certain personality to make a program successful?

Certainly, a programming background helps as well as a physics/electronics background, but, as I stated above, there are outside mentors to help with this.  Teachers have to have a good rapport with students, not have a know-it-all, stuffy attitude.  Teachers also have to have good classroom control; otherwise the students will want to play all day, not accomplishing any kind of objective.

What do you find the most exciting about robotics?

From a programming perspective, I find that having to work with gears, motors and sensors that don't always behave how you'd expect is very intriguing.  Students get REALLY excited when their creation actually works and works consistently.

What does your family think of your career and your involvement in robotics?  Do you think any of your children will follow in your footsteps?

My husband, Domingo, is Math Dept. Chair at Gabrielino.  He and I are co-advisors of MESA at Gabrielino.  As far as Botball goes, his primary involvement has been building the Botball game board and hanging around in my room after school when I can't be there.  Our younger son, Daniel, a graduate of Gabrielino, was on our first Botball team in 2001.  He just finished his first year at Stanford where he plans on majoring in engineering.  Our older son, Jason, is a senior at Pomona College in Claremont.  He has no interest in math and science.  However, he is majoring in English and wants to be a high school English teacher.  He has some film making experience and wants to perhaps teach that as well.  Teaching interests him because, in part, all his life he as seen my husband and I very involved with students and education.

What advice do you have for teachers who want to make a robotics program available to their students?  Is it expensive to implement a robotics program?

Botball costs $2,000 per team ($1,800 for each additional team).  The $2,000 covers a Botball kit which includes software and enough parts to create 2 robots, and a 3-day teacher training workshop.  The cost to build the Botball game board is about $70.  There is some financial aid available through the KISS Institute, especially for schools new to Botball.  Because of the expense, teachers have to make it clear to the students that they need to take the program seriously.  Even though Botball at our school is an after-school activity, I still take roll and demand students in the room be involved.  No Botball groupies allowed!

- 26 July 2002


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Last Updated:
9 August 2002

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