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DeKalb High School robotics club picking up speed

NIU students offer assistance in mentoring, hosting workshops

DeKALB – High-school freshman Adam Tumminaro has always thought robots were cool, and now, he’s working on building one to compete in the largest national robotics competition. 

“I know about wiring and stuff, because I’ve always been interested in electronic circuitry,” Tumminaro said. “But I never knew how to put it all together. Building my own electronics stuff interested me.” 

Tumminaro is one of about 30 DeKalb High School students who are part of the DHS Robotics club, in its pilot year this semester. The group is still in its beginning stages, competing for grants and working through the basics of robotics. Eventually, DHS will compete in the nationwide For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) robotics competition.

Northern Illinois University’s Robotics club is working with the high school team on its venture, by mentoring them and hosting electronics and machinery workshops in the College of Engineering and Engineering Technology lab.

“A lot of us were on high-school robotics teams too,” said Tim Olson, president of the NIU Robotics club. “We know the kinds of dynamics that happen on those teams and the opportunities that it creates for you, so we wanted to be able to help out DeKalb and give them some of the same opportunities we had.” 

Helping the high school team gives NIU team members more experience working with a wider-variety of people and opens the college group up to additional sponsorship opportunities, Olson said. 

Olson said when he was a kid, he was always taking things apart and trying to put them back together because he wanted to know how things worked. In his view, it’s important to support kids who are like that too, particularly as focus on science, technology, electronics and math [STEM] opportunities are picking on speed. 

“A big thing is exposing kids to something other than sports, or being a business or accounting major,” Olson said. “STEM is getting bigger and bigger. … If you’re interested in that, something like this can give you focus and you can see what you want to learn more about.” 

School officials have said STEM opportunities and clubs like these will put students in a better position to find internships and jobs once they graduate. The DHS robotics team is in the process of trying to get a grant from Monsanto, which will sponsor a team from each of its regions this year, for the first time. 

“Monsanto puts a lot of effort into funding STEM learning programs, so this falls right into that category,” said Troy Dukes, site manager for the Waterman branch of Monsanto. “These are ultimately the kind of people companies like us will end up hiring. … We have teams of engineers and technology folks. It’s becoming a big part of what we do as a company.” 

Michael Lofthouse, first-year math teacher and advisor for the club, said the team is still working through funding methods – it costs about $6,000 just to compete in the nationwide FIRST competition – but has secured its first starter kit with some of the electronics parts that they need, so students can start getting more hands-on experience outside the NIU lab.

The FIRST competition will take place in the spring. The competition is projected to bring in more than 400,000 students and more than 44,000 teams from across the nation to compete. Teams will have to program robots to play different games – which won’t be released until January. In the past robots have needed to be able to throw balls into baskets and putt golf-balls across the room. 

So far, students are enjoying learning the basics, like different computer language programming to give commands to the machines they will ultimately construct. 

“I’ve always had a passion for math and science in general,” Senior Leena Ghrayeb, one of the founding members of the club, said. “We thought it’d be a good idea to have a robotics club to foster that interest in the STEM field.” 

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