ORISE Robotics Academy teaches students to build bots and skills

June 10, 2024

ORISE Robotics Academy teaches students to build bots and skills

Lily Anna Starmer, West High School senior, shows off her robot.

In the world of building robots, basic skills include designing, building and programming. Those skills, however, aren’t upstaged by intangible soft skills like critical thinking, complex problem-solving and teamwork. Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) hosted high school students from around East Tennessee for the purpose of developing students’ robotics capabilities of both basic and soft skills. Every year, this weeklong ORISE Robotics Academy (June 3-7, 2024) seeks to encourage rising 10th, 11th and 12th graders to become engineers, computer programmers and technology leaders of the future.

“This is what I love. This is what I want to do. I want to be a mechanical engineer, so this is a perfect fit for me to come have fun, build some robots and learn a lot,” explained Lily Anna Starmer, when asked why she would give up a week of her summer break to participate in this academy. Starmer is a rising senior at West High School in Knoxville, Tenn. On Thursday afternoon, she stood at the top of the leader board as she and her classmates tinkered on their robots in preparation for the final competition on Friday.

Throughout the week, the students earn points as they build on skills they learn each day. Because there’s an emphasis on systems-thinking, points can be earned through brain teasers (such as answering riddles) and engineering challenges (like building the tallest tower with popsicle sticks), in addition to coding robots.

“At first, we just had to make our robot drive around in a square and follow the path. Then, there was a figure eight. And then, there was an obstacle course, and we had to learn the coding side of it,” said Starmer.

ORISE Robotics Academy teaches students to build bots and skills

ORISE Robotics Academy participants tinker with their robots.

During the school year, Alan Reece, of Jefferson County High School in Dandridge, Tenn., teaches AP Computer Science and digital imaging. During the summer, he’s the instructor for ORISE’s Robotics Academy. “It’s a lot of critical thinking. Trial and error. The reason I really like teaching coding with robotics is you can put the robot in the field, run the code, and you can see what happens,” Reece said. “If something doesn’t work, you can say, ‘okay well, it turned left when it should have turned right,’ and you can go back and change your code.”

According to Reece, debugging a robot is easier when you watch a robot make a mistake (turn left rather than right, for example) as opposed to looking at computer code and finding a missing semicolon. This introductory level class encourages students to understand the whole process.

“Sometimes, kids will come in with past experience in robotics and say, ‘oh, I’m a builder,’ or, ‘I’m a coder.’ ‘I don’t do building,’ or, ‘I don’t do coding.’” Reece said. “Here, we’re both coders and builders. Students who are really strong in coding are exposed to building and vice versa. We give two days of coding, and then, we’ve got two days of building. If you’re not strong in either, then you get four days of both.”

Day one is the introduction when students receive their Clawbot kit—a VEX Robotics Design System. They all build the same robot. After the initial build, each student can modify and improve what they don’t like, building the bot as they want.

ORISE Robotics Academy teaches students to build bots and skills

Starmer’s bot has an intake mechanism.

“I made an intake for my robot that’s something that I designed and put on there,” Starmer beamed, referring to the mechanism that enables her bot to pick up disks for the autonomous challenges.

“They’re not building remote control cars,” Reece explained. “They have to design a robot that is drivable, but it can also work independently. Students learn how to program the bot to sense its environment and get to the end goal.”

Reece believes hands-on engineering practice is invaluable. He’s proud this academy gives students the opportunity to stretch their minds to find solutions rather than being handed answers.

It’s a course designed for students like Starmer in mind: “There’s absolutely a lot of learning, growth and knowledge, but it’s also just really fun. It’s not stressful or crazy pressure. You have a week. It’s pretty relaxed. Just good fun,” she smiled.

Find the full list of opportunities like ORISE Robotics Academy on our website.

Media Contacts

Pam Bonee
Director, Communications
Phone: 865.603.5142

Wendy West
Manager, Communications
Phone: 865.207.7953

The Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) is a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) asset that is dedicated to enabling critical scientific, research, and health initiatives of the department and its laboratory system by providing world class expertise in STEM workforce development, scientific and technical reviews, and the evaluation of radiation exposure and environmental contamination.

ORISE is managed by ORAU, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation and federal contractor, for DOE’s Office of Science. The single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, the Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.osti.gov.