ROCK RAPIDS—Science teacher Bill Allen did not know anything about robotics or programming when he started a robotics club at Central Lyon High School with help from Iowa’s scale-up programs STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).
Eight years later, by his own admission, he still does not know anything about programming. He doesn’t need to.
“The kids are so motivated to follow their interests that they figure it all out on their own,” Allen said. “It is a real genuine learning situation. Mostly, I lock the door when they are done. The kids do everything else. It is fun to witness.”
The interest in robotics has grown in eight years at Central Lyon too. There was just one team initially. Just a year later, there were enough students to expand to two teams. Now, Central Lyon has a middle school team too.
“As of last year, we are the only district I am aware of in northwest Iowa that offers the option for a middle school team,” Allen said.
Central Lyon Middle School science teacher Jerry Pytleski did not have a problem getting students involved either.
“I just put a sign up,” Pytleski said. “Last year, all the sixth-graders I had in my class were asking ‘When can we do that?’ So that sparked an interest.”
The seventh- and eighth-graders at Central Lyon do not compete against other middle school students though. They compete against other high school students.
Pytleski said although it is a competition, there is much more to it than that.
“It’s great to finish high and that’s what they aspire to do,” he said. “I’ll tell you what I look for though as a sponsor, an instructor and a coach, it’s that step, every time getting a little better from that first bot, the prototype that they built.”
Allen said that in addition to learning about coding, manufacturing processes and 3D printing while working on robots, students learn about working as a team and communicating.
“I have seen students who were not confident at all in a traditional classroom setting become leaders in robotics,” Allen said. “Those students have really excelled in the robotics atmosphere. One thing that gets overlooked is the communication component.”
Central Lyon competes in the Mandalore League. The league stretches from south of Sioux City to Estherville. There also are a few schools from Nebraska too.
Unlike high school sports in Iowa, there is no separation based on school sizes for robotics.
“In the years we have been fortunate enough to advance to the state tournament in Coralville, Iowa, we compete against 2A, 3A and 4A schools,” Allen said.
“We have qualified for the state meet four times at Central Lyon,” he said. “That is the students’ goal each year.”
The students build many designs for each competition.
“One of the goals for this year’s challenge is to stack Lego-like blocks that are about four inches by four inches by six inches,” Allen said. “The higher we stack them, the more points we receive. We have a very interesting scissor lift being developed right now that scares me. It is very complicated but intriguing at the same time.
“We also have a couple of programmers that are working hard on the codes to make our robots do some interesting things based purely on sensing objects, manipulating objects and moving them around the course.”
Allen gives all of the credit to the students.
“Jerry and I offer the opportunity,” he said. “We could not build or program a better robot than what the students come up with each year.”
Unfortunately, robotics do not come cheap.
“Two pieces of aluminum U-channel cost more than a basketball,” Allen said. “Our program would not exist were it not for our business sponsors and administration. It is fun, as coaches, for Jerry and me to see what our kids can accomplish when the district and the community invest in the students.”
Allen said that sponsors are not only from Rock Rapids or Doon either. They also come from Lester and Sioux Center and they always are looking to add more.
Central Lyon’s next meet is on Dec. 14 in LeMars while their league championship is scheduled for Jan. 4 at Briar Cliff University in Sioux City.
“For robotics, we won’t turn anyone away that has an interest,” Allen said. “It could turn into a career someday.”