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Diving into Robotics: An Epic Extracurricular for STEM Success

11/04/202418 minute read
Diving into Robotics: An Epic Extracurricular for STEM Success

At a high school robotics competition I recently attended, all the benefits of being part of a robotics extracurricular were on full display. From ways to get involved, to the many personal, educational, social, and career benefits and opportunities in store for you, this post takes you on a deep dive into robotics. We'll tell you why robotics stands out as an epic extracurricular for any high school student seeking a fun and exciting way to explore STEM learning with like-minded peers.


“I don't really know if there's a technical name for this particular kind of robot..., I'm not sure, I just call it EPIC!”

- Emily, Captain, Galileo High School Robotics Team, FIRST Robotics Regional Competition

Diving Into My First Robotics Competition

Experiencing a thing first hand often changes how you see it. I recently attended a robotics competition for the first time and got to enjoy talking with some excited high school robotics students — some from the other side of the world. The event, the FIRST Robotics East Bay Regional Robotics Competition, was at Berkeley High School, just a few blocks from the iconic UC Berkeley campus.

Even if STEM isn’t my cup of Kool Aid, so to speak, I couldn’t help but get caught up in the contagious excitement of my surroundings: the tinkering, the teamwork and team camaraderie, the awe of what the robots could do, students' own engineering accomplishments, and the very visible fun and excitement the students were caught up in.

In this case, students had taken their robotics extracurriculars to the next level — a regional team competition — not only putting their robotics concoctions to the test before hundreds of spectators, but mixing with teens from all over California and even from around the world — as far as India, Turkey, and Australia.

Egemen, a student on the EMONER Robotics Team from a public high school in Istanbul, was clearly thrilled to be visiting the US with his team. It was Egemen's second time in the US and his team's fourth visit.

When I asked Egemen what he liked best about participating in the event (his team had just left the arena) “YES!” he said, “This, right here, right now, doing this [pointing at his surroundings, then at me, then at his robot] and talking to you, all of this, it is the best part!”

Sharing the event with these students, it was clear to me that robotics delivers a kind of maximum opportunity when it comes to high school extracurriculars — offering a really fun and exciting way to build science learning and exploration, while also providing an exceptional opportunity for the participants to garner some truly epic, future-facing academic and career advantages.

Here are a few of the qualities I observed as an educator that made me a fan of robotics for high school students:

  • Students enjoy a front seat in the arena of real-life, futuristic innovation
  • There’s always stuff to do: inventing, fixing, trouble-shooting, testing… most of it involving direct hands-on tinkering and design challenges
  • You can think on your own, but you’re always interacting in team collaborations with like-minded and inquisitive peers, so it’s socially rewarding and energizing
  • It offers you genuine and abundant opportunities to investigate and apply STEM concepts, in ever evolving combinations, with lots of detective-like curiosity and experimentation
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Left to Right: Poyraz and Egemen of the Emoner Robotics Team, from Istanbul, Turkey, at the FIRST Robotics Competition, Berkeley, California, April 6, 2024.

Robotics' Epic Benefits — Educational and Personal

If you’re interested in STEM, there are other extracurriculars you can get involved with aside from robotics. I do understand that!

There are engineering clubs and rocket-building activities, coding workshops and competitions, remote-controlled cars and drones, mathnasiums, or even astronomy programs, with awesome telescopes, and more…

So picking the best extracurricular always involves some hard decisions… It’s your choice, of course, but here are the six top reasons I think robotics stands out among extracurricular activities with great benefits for high school students:

  1. Strengthening Math and Science Skills with Cross-Disciplinary Applications: Robotics offers a practical application of math and science, infusing life into STEM learning in ways that can enhance understanding and retention. It’s also a field that routinely demands creative and novel applications of diverse STEM concepts — from math, to coding, to electronics, computer programming, hardware designs, and mechanical engineering. With the boundaries between STEM disciplines blurring, robotics is an ideal activity for the next generation of innovators.
  2. Career and Workplace Skills: In a robotics club or team, you learn much more than technical skills. Project management, teamwork, communication, and problem-solving skills developed here are vital in any career.
  3. College Readiness: Students like Emily and Egemon, whom I met at the FIRST Robotics competition in Berkeley, California often find that their experiences open doors to prestigious universities and global networks. Emily, a senior at Galileo High School, told me she has plans to major in a STEM field, potentially transferring to a great STEM university, such as MIT or Carnegie Mellon. In fact, FIRST Robotics reports that 92% of their participants aspire to attend college, making a robotics extracurricular a great opportunity to find and forge connections with peers who share your academic and career aspirations.
  4. Real-World Technology Applications: Through robotics, you get a sneak peek into the challenges and applications of technology in the real world. For example, VEX robotics competitions require students to tackle challenges related to developing and building autonomous robotics, giving students a front-row seat at the cutting-edge of real-world engineering challenges, applications, and opportunities.
  5. Group Activity Is Fun: Robotics is not a solitary endeavor. You collaborate with a club or team, share ideas, and work towards common goals, and there are tangible accomplishments for your efforts. And when you go to competitions, you take it to the next level, connecting with students from other schools and places, potentially from around the world! ("Hey, what's your WhatsApp handle?")
  6. Connecting with Industries and the People in Them: Because robotics is still an emerging industry, a serious commitment to robotics extracurriculars should be a great way to garner practical career and industry insights, networks, and connections for a future-facing industry with immense potential. Whether through competitions, workshops, or guest lectures, you get to meet and learn from professionals in the field. For example, The Engineering Design Lab, a pre-college program for high schoolers at Tufts University, exposes students to engineering, robotics, and computation but also hosts guest speakers who discuss their own research and development work as well as issues and problems they face in the real world.

At another recent robotics competition, in central California, coordinated by VEX Robotics, students talked about quite a variety of benefits they get from this kind of extracurricular:

  • Meeting, learning about, and making connections with other people...
  • Learning how to use a screwdriver!..
  • Not giving up on high school...
  • Figuring out how to build something mechanical, with friends, and with their own initiative and own hands...
  • Learning about how to learn — through trial and error, and from failures...

Robotics has all the features of a fun and adventurous, project-driven club or team experience, while also putting students at the forefront of STEM learning and formidable career opportunities down the road. These benefits make robotics an extracurricular that's hard to rival — for STEM learning, for widening your social networks, for elevating your college profile, and more.

So Many Ways to Play: The Most Common Robotics Extracurriculars

  • Clubs and Teams: I honestly don’t know how many robotics clubs and teams there are in the US, let alone the world, but they are numerous enough to offer most students a ready way to get into a robotics extracurricular. For example, FIRST Robotics is touted as engaging a network of more than 3,500 teams internationally — reaching more than 86,000 students. The Robotics Education & Competition Foundation, which coordinates the VEX Robotics competitions internationally, boasts affiliations with some 20,000 teams (middle and high school) from over 50 different countries!  Clubs and teams like these are a fun way to learn robotics while connecting with other students.
  • High School Classes: Some schools offer robotics as part of their curriculum. These classes can range from introductory courses to more advanced, project-based learning courses where you build and program robots. While most robotics classes are likely to combine learning from a range of STEM disciplines, you may also find some emphasizing advanced math or software coding. If you need more options, consider online high school courses, such as those offered by the top-ranking Crimson Global Academy.

HIGH SCHOOL ROBOTICS COURSE DESCRIPTION

Robotics Engineering (P)(CTE) Year · 10 Credits

The robotics class is a hands-on project-based course designed to develop students’ creativity and technological savvy through the process of building, programming and operating robots designed to perform specific tasks. The course begins with simple experiments involving sensors and motors. More-complicated tasks involve building integrated prototype devices that collect data using sensors, process this data using computer-language code (Robot C), and execute tasks via computer-controlled motorized manipulation of simple machines. Students are responsible for developing devices in teams and communicating the reasons why they chose a particular method for achieving their team’s goals. This will be done in various ways, including maintaining an engineering notebook, designing websites/blogs/posters and making presentations. The course fosters cooperative interaction and emphasizes the social and real-world application of technical enterprise. Prerequisites: None.

  • High School Vocational & Technology Programs: Some high schools may have specialized vocational training programs or similar options that include career-oriented instruction in robotics and related technologies. If your high school has vocational programming, but not robotics, you might be able to get the program coordinator to help you get a robotics course up and running!
  • College Bridge and Pre-Summer Programs: You might be able to access robotics courses or related STEM courses by enrolling at a local college or university as a high school bridge student. Or, you can research pre-college courses or summer programs. Many universities offer summer programs or workshops for high school students with STEM instruction or projects. Online you'll find offerings too, such as the many courses offered through Nasa's Robotics Alliance Project, or others listed below:

Academy for Robotics at the University of Texas, Austin

Robotics Summer Academy at St. Louis University

Engineering Design Lab Pre-College Summer Programs at Tufts University

MITES Summer — A STEM summer program at MIT

  • Other Opportunities: While formal educational programs are abundant, robotics isn't entirely limited to school settings. Look out for local maker fairs, community clubs, online platforms, or private nonprofit organizations that might offer robotics activities.
  • Internships: For those looking to gain real-world experience, internships for high schoolers in companies or research labs focusing on robotics can provide invaluable insights and professional exposure. A quick online search for high school robotics internships will uncover opportunities like these:
High School Robotics Summer Intern

Analog Devices, Beaverton, OR

$18 an hourFull time

High School Intern (STEM@GTRI)

Georgia Tech, Atlanta GA

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What Kind of Students Are a Good Fit for Robotics?

  • STEM Interests, Curiosity, and Problem-Solving: Naturally, students with an inclination towards Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) will find robotics especially appealing. If you have lots of curiosity when it comes to math, problem solving, and mechanical design and development challenges, robotics could be an ideal extracurricular for you.
  • Hands-on Learning Enthusiasts: Even if you don’t like the theoretical side of math and engineering so much, if you have a passion for hands-on tinkering and building and ‘maker’ culture, you might find you can make positive contributions to robotics projects and find it all very rewarding. This could also be your opportunity to have some fun as you consider if you’re ready for a deeper dive into more advanced math and engineering coursework.
  • Team Players and Collaborators: If you enjoy collaboration or want to strengthen your collaboration muscles, you should find that activities in most robotics extracurriculars, especially programs focused on designing, building, operating, and testing robotic devices, are very collaborative and team oriented.
  • Striving to Reconnect with School: If day-to-day classwork and homework assignments are leaving you asking what’s the point of all this?? Then the hands-on problem-solving and building you do in robotics may be a way to make learning more fun again so you can reconnect with your larger academic and career aspirations.
  • Initiative Takers and Adventurers: If you're up to the challenge of taking initiative, want a bit more adventure in your academic life, and have — or want to develop — organizational, leadership, or collaboration skills, robotics is likely to deliver on all of these counts!

“The Galileo robotics team is totally student led — no one tells us what to do, or how to design the machine, it’s just the actions we need it to do that guide the design, but we do everything on our own.”

- Emily, Captain of the Galileo HS Robotics Team, San Francisco, California

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Emily, Team Captain, with other members of the Galileo HS Robotics Team, at the FIRST Robotics Competition, Berkeley, California, April 6, 2024.

What’s the Best Kind of Robotics Extracurricular for Your Personality?

The world of robotics offers a variety of pathways, each with its unique flavor and opportunities. Whether you’re just starting out, or looking to deepen your involvement, here’s how to find the right fit for your interests:

Clubs: Robotics clubs offer a relaxed environment where you can learn at your own pace. Clubs often involve group projects, allowing you to explore different roles and skills, from coding to constructing. They’re also great for making friends who share your passion for robotics.

Classes and Courses: For a more structured learning experience, consider enrolling in robotics classes. These courses often provide a comprehensive curriculum, covering everything from the basics of robot design to more advanced programming. They're ideal for students who prefer a step-by-step approach to learning.

Teams: Joining a robotics team can be an exhilarating experience, especially if you enjoy challenges and competitions. Teams usually focus on building and programming robots for specific objectives, often gearing up for local, national, or international competitions. This environment is perfect for students who thrive under pressure and enjoy collaborative, goal-oriented projects.

Getting Involved at the Next Level: Internships and Competitions

Internships: To truly immerse yourself in the field of robotics, consider pursuing an internship. Internships provide hands-on experience in a professional setting, where you can apply your skills and learn from experts in the field. They're an excellent way to build your resume, gain insights into the industry, and make valuable connections.

Competitions: Participating in robotics competitions can be a game-changer. Events like the FIRST Robotics Competition, VEX Robotics World Championship, or RoboCup challenge you to apply your skills in real-world scenarios. Competitions are not just about winning; they're about learning to strategize, adapt, and collaborate under pressure. They're also a fantastic way to meet peers from around the world who share your passion.

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Photo Credit: Suvan Ravi, FIRST Robotics

Starting Your Own Robotics Club or Team

If your school doesn't have a robotics club or team, why not start one? Here's a basic roadmap:

  1. Gauge Interest: Talk to your classmates and teachers to see if there's enough interest in robotics. You might be surprised by the number of students who are fascinated by robots but have never had the opportunity to explore this field.
  2. Find a Mentor: Look for a teacher or staff member who can guide your club, especially if you’re new to robotics. A mentor can provide valuable insights and support in managing the club.
  3. Secure Resources: Starting a robotics club can be resource-intensive. You'll need a space to work, as well as tools and materials. Fundraising, school grants, or sponsorships from local businesses can help cover these costs.
  4. Set Goals: Decide what your club or team wants to achieve. Do you want to focus on learning the basics, building robots for fun, or preparing for competitions? Clear goals will help steer your club’s activities.
  5. Plan and Organize: Create a schedule for meetings and sessions. Consistency is key in keeping members engaged. Also, plan out your activities, from learning sessions to hands-on building and programming days.
  6. Promote Your Club: Spread the word through school announcements, posters, and social media. The more diverse your membership, the richer the learning experience will be.
  7. Persevere and Be Resourceful: Starting a robotics club or team may be the best alternative if your school doesn’t already offer one, but it’s good to be realistic. Starting a club can be as challenging as it is rewarding. Emily, the captain of San Francisco’s Galileo High School robotics team, told me it’s very rewarding building the robot and competing, but there’s not always a lot of extra support:

We’ve made lots of improvements and the robot we have this year has a more solid design, breaks less often, and is more versatile, but I wish schools like mine would do more to support robotics clubs, I feel like we all need to advocate for schools to support these clubs, we [students] do almost everything on our own.

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Final Thoughts

So, what are you waiting for? If you have an interest in STEM why settle for an extracurricular that doesn't offer all the benefits you can get from getting into robotics?

Even more, if you're aiming for a top college or university down the road, you want to use your time wisely, participating in top-notch extracurriculars that really give you a boost academically and personally, making high school more fun and rewarding and helping you chart a path to a university that will really rocket you ahead in your chosen major.

If you're looking for more ideas about great extracurriculars, passion projects, and more, check out the links to further reading, below.

For questions you have about your own path to a top school, feel free to book a free consultation with an Advisor who'll be happy to explore your next steps with you as you plan your own college journey! We can't wait to show you why Crimson Education has such an amazing track record helping students around the world gain admissions offers from the world's most selective schools.

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