Aidan Spencer was an outgoing athlete with dreams of a career in business or public relations when he suffered dual tragedies at age 13. His home burned to the ground, and then his neck was fractured in a car accident. Spencer suffered immense pain and intense physical therapy, missing basketball and football and feeling he’d lost everything.
“Two of my friends saw I was in a bad place and invited me to the [OKC Robot] team, but I thought, ‘I was an athlete, why would I join a robotics team about engineering and STEM?’” said Spencer.
But the homeschooled student went to a meeting and was intrigued by the group’s goal of designing, building and programming robots for competitions in which the robot must perform specific tasks or overcome obstacles. Meeting twice a week in the January-through-April robotics competition season, Spencer quickly was won over by the friendly nature of his OKC Robot teammates, who even pitched in to purchase his gear and pay for his hotel room at an out-of-state competition.
Aidan realized robotics isn’t just for those who are science or mathematically minded. He has had the opportunity to hone his business and communications skills by making presentations to judges and Rotary clubs, sharing and listening to others’ ideas, setting up meetings with mayors, fundraising for his team, writing and producing videos and spreading awareness about the benefits of robotics.
“We were lacking in the PR and business department and I saw I could help and learn,” said Spencer.
Now the business manager for the club, Spencer is proud that OKC Robot was the first local robotics team to accept homeschool students, as well as public and private school students, and their membership comprises an equal number of males and females.
“We realize there is not always as much female presence in STEM, so we actively seek out girls to participate,” said Spencer. “We also get former female teammates, now scientists and engineers, to come back to mentor our team.”
Spencer is completing his GED and taking courses at Rose State College while mentoring elementary and middle school students on OKC Robot’s younger teams.
“It allows me to pass on the knowledge I’ve learned and get new ideas,” said Spencer, who loves watching shy students become leaders and realize where their specific talents lie.
Jackson Schneberger, a 5th grader at Crossings Christian School, is just beginning his robotics journey, joining his school’s LEGO League robotics team in the fall. He was nervous for his first competition but his team’s success led to an appearance at the state competition in December. Mom Meredith Schneberger, an engineer, was a little disappointed to hear there were no girls on the team this year, but like Spencer, Schneberger is quick to point out that his team is made up of many different personalities, not just kids who are into science and math.
Though Schneberger’s not sure he wants to be an engineer like his Mom, he knows what he’s learning will be helpful during his educational career and after. His love of LEGOs is what drove him to join the team, but now he likes figuring out what goes on inside computers. Meredith Schneberger appreciates that her son is being exposed to a variety of technology and sees his creativity and problem-solving skills flourishing.
Katelyn Kelly of Girl Scouts of Western Oklahoma (GSWO) said when students explore STEM in a safe environment that’s not performance-driven, they gain confidence. Nationally, Girl Scouts recently introduced several new STEM-related badges, including engineering, computer science, robotics and space science. Locally, GSWO has 13 robotics teams among its member troops and offers robotics kits that can be checked out to learn coding and programming, complete a badge or take to competitions.
While many metro students participate in robotics teams after school, a few Oklahoma schools have the luxury of including robotics during their school day. Thanks to a partnership with the Muscogee Creek Nation, Dunbar School in the Okmulgee School District transitioned its after-school robotics program to an elective for its seventh graders. Over the last four years, library media specialist Courtney Norton has learned robotics alongside her students. Though the majority of her students are male, she feels a sense of pride in the growing number of girls taking her robotics classes.
“They feel empowered in a world where they don’t typically fit, and they are excited about it,” said Norton.
Norton values the communication, typing, spelling, grammar, attention to detail, responsibility and problem-solving skills her students are learning as they write code and program their robots to accomplish tasks. But the lesson she most appreciates teaching is failing, and then persevering. Unlike a typical pencil-and-paper class where students don’t get much interaction with teachers aside from graded assignments, in Norton’s class students have to get vulnerable and tell her when they don’t understand something.
“This is a safe place to fail,” said Norton. “They don’t like getting things wrong but they realize they have to try things several times to get the results they want.”
Julia Utley, a STEM Specialist and mentor for the robotics team at Francis Tuttle Technology Center, sees the 10th through 12th grade students on their team learning professional skills like critical thinking, compromise and appreciating others viewpoints.
Though students often compete against friends, Utley said the uplifting, positive spirit among competitors makes them all sharper and enhances their joy. Team members have gone on to pursue engineering careers, occasionally gaining interviews or internships with team mentors from local companies like Boeing, or in unrelated fields who express how the skills they learned through robotics have benefitted them in careers like marketing or photography.
“Beyond learning science and technology, students learn to present their thoughts while still being open to other solutions,” said Utley. “They learn how to handle diversity and failure, they learn to be accountable and how to rise to the occasion.”
Where to find robotics programs for kids:
Girl Scouts of Western Oklahoma
Troops can form or join robotics teams and have access to robotics curriculum and kits to check out.
Robotics teams for homeschool, public and private school students, elementary through high school.
KISS Institute for Practical Robots
Norman-based provider of programming-based educational robotics programs; host of Botball and JrBotball events.
Find a robotics team near you, ages elementary through high school.
FIRST Lego League
Lego-based robotics competition for ages 6-14.
Online nonprofit offering free curriculum resources and tutorials in computer science and coding.