WL-WV robotics teams carve out space to excel

The phrase “hands-on learning” used to refer primarily to specialized classrooms for the study of home economics, auto mechanics, woodworking and the like.

by: SPOKESMAN PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Wilsonville High School freshman Kjel Petterson-Willey, right, and Adrian Shotola-Hardt work with other members on Team 1425's robot at a recent evening practice session in the high school cafeteria, one of several makeshift spaces the team uses to prepare for competitions. These days, with a renewed focus on educating students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), hands-on learning now often refers to activities like designing and operating robots, creating scientific inquiry projects and conducting engineering experiments like those on display at recent district-sponsored science fairs.

West Linn and Wilsonville’s high school robotics team, FIRST Team 1425, more commonly referred to as Error Code Xero, will soon host a vivid display of the hands-on learning valued in school districts like WL-WV. This weekend, 32 robotics teams from around the region will gather at Wilsonville High School, where Error Code Xero will host a two-day regional robotics competition.

Judging by the interest in robotics at primary and middle schools, the high school robotics team is poised to grow in upcoming years. The question is: Will the team find space to grow into?

“When I went out and surveyed our principals a year ago about how they’re using their buildings, I was surprised by how many schools have some types of robotics programs,” WL-WV Director of Operations Tim Woodley said.

Woodley said parents and group advisers frequently approach him to ask for space in schools for their teams and clubs to meet.

“Over the years, as a growing district, we pretty much use all our space, and to dedicate it for that purpose is hard to do,” he said.

Currently in its 10th year, the district’s high school team is one of the oldest robotics groups in the district and has access to team space at Wilsonville High School.

by: SPOKESMAN PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - This small, crowded storage room in the Wilsonville High School cafeteria is the home of the schools robotics team and equipment - even the to-do list (bottom left). “They have a mature robotics team, and they get to use space in the building. But that’s the only place,” Woodley said. “We do have some classrooms at the middle school level that support robotics, but at the classroom level. Some schools have made a spot, but it’s not been universal.”

Superintendent Bill Rhoades used a sports analogy to describe the growing need for space.

“What has been happening is that we’ve had way more kids involved in robotics and the notion of designing using technology and science to engineer,” he said. “So there’s been this huge increase in the need for space for them to do it. Just like when you have more kids playing baseball, you need more baseball space. What are the playgrounds, what are the spaces?”

One possibility is establishing “maker spaces” suitable for STEM experimentation. The idea was discussed at the school district’s bond summit, held Feb. 22. At the summit, community members gathered to discuss the district’s capital improvement needs and to weigh in on the possibility of putting a capital improvement bond on the ballot this year.

If the school board decides to put a bond in front of voters — and if voters approve it — creating those “maker” or “garage” spaces will become easier.

“When I think of a new middle school on Advance Road, where you’re going to start from scratch, I can well imagine, like, six garage spaces off a larger room,” Woodley said. “It would be very flexible.”

In that vision, teams like Error Code Xero could sign up to use space for a full year or for a shorter time. Teachers could sign up to use the space, too, for a week or a month, and students could have access to space to develop science inquiry projects like those recently on display at the CREST/Jane Goodall Science Symposium.

“It doesn’t need to be prioritized by age, where the old woodshop and welding stations were pretty much high school stuff,” Woodley said. “These sorts of spaces would be appropriate at a primary school, a middle school, too.”

That idea of multiage use is key to the district’s emerging thinking on maker space.

“One of the neatest pieces of professional development I’ve ever seen was our second-grade teachers coming in to learn about robotics and to learn how to teach units specifically around robotics, so that all second-graders would have experience with that and then have some options about how they wanted to pursue that,” Rhoades said.

Having a permanent, dedicated team space would be helpful to the robotics team, members and mentors agree.

“In my time, I’ve gone to other team’s workspaces,” team leader and WHS senior Karen Harper said. “Ours is by far the smallest. We do use our space efficiently. We do have to move things.”

One of the team’s major sponsors, Xerox, allows the team to use space in its facility. Although doing that solves the problem of access to space and tools, splitting the team across locations causes some problems too.

“We have our Saturday meetings and we say, ‘Where is mechanical? They’re at Xerox,’” Harper said.

One item on the team’s wish list, according to mechanical lead Ryan Kelly, is a mill that team members could use to make some of their own parts.

“I wish we had a mill,” Kelly said. “I don’t know where we’d put it.”

Team mentor John Jennings said that one local organization has indicated a willingness to donate a CNC milling machine to the robotics team.

“I’ve approached the district,” Jennings said. “If this comes available, we’ve got to be able to store it.”

by: SPOKESMAN PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Wilsonville High robotics team members Jacob Tiederman, left, and Tristan Briggler assemble the student-designed and -built mobile pit where the team works on its robot during competition. The entire pit breaks down and folds up into a large box roughly 6 feet long and 4 feet tall. It sits on casters and is readily movable despite weighing roughly 800 pounds. Even if voters do not have the chance to vote on or approve a capital improvement bond, Woodley has some ideas, although nothing has been discussed officially, let alone decided.

Space potentially could be converted in the 700 Building at West Linn High School, in a storage building at WHS, in a barn on property the district owns in the Frog Pond area or in a former locker room at Bolton Primary School.

“They’re small enough and inexpensive enough,” Woodley said. “They’re not a finished classroom or a science lab; they’re utilitarian spaces. Maybe it’s just plywood on the walls, and you could hang a pulley from the ceiling or screw a shelf on the wall and it wouldn’t hurt anything. They’d be safe spaces, with fire sprinklers and exits and everything. They’d need power sources, probably a workbench and technology.

“I’m so happy that this is becoming an exciting possibility,” he said.

Kate Hoots can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 503-636-1281, ext. 112. Follow her on Twitter: @CommuniKater.

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