Engineering program helps kids build robots

March 15, 2010 4:37:40 AM PDT
This For Your Family segment features a unique and very popular school program getting young kids fired up about engineering.The involved 12, 13 and 14-year-olds spend hours upon hours after school learning to design and redesign robots. It's a program that, until recently, was only available at some high schools. Now, it takes place at two middle schools in Oak Park.

In a room, once a week, after school, the young teenagers become budding engineers, turning classroom scientific concepts into real-life robots.

"The goal of the program is to expose kids to the technology, but also to the total engineering experience," said Bob Parks, a software engineer and a parent.

Parks volunteers his expertise to mentor the club called the Vex Robotics club at Julian Middle School.

"I think science and technology are of emerging importance, particularly in robotics area. It's a prime area for development," said Parks.

For an entire school year, 80 students in the district work in teams of four. From the wheels to the arms, functionality to mobility, the kids design the robots starting from a generic kit. The rest is up to their imagination.

Much like in a real job, the teams have to keep tweaking their design, working through their frustration until it works. The program also actively recruits girls to learn about careers in engineering.

"I think it's pretty cool because we get to work with mechanics, programming, and I think it's really fun," one student said.

The year-long project culminates with a huge robotics competition between Julian and Brooks Middle School. The winner is determined by how fast the robots can pick up and drop foam balls into a series of boxes and tubes.

But post-competition, their teachers and parents hope building the robots has also taught the kids some valuable life skills.

With so much focus right now about school funding, it is important to note that this program is funded through the Oak Park Education Foundation, with most of the money coming from individual donations.

ABC7 would like to feature other innovating, unique school programs. If you have a suggestion, you can submit it to or through the morning show Facebook page.