Robots come to life as Brunswick Community College hosts inaugural Robocon

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Brunswick Community College, in Boliva, N.C., hosted the inaugural event. (Photos by Benjamin Schachtman).

BOLIVIA, N.C. — The sound of cheering, laughter and whirring electrical motors filled the hallways of Brunswick Community College’s Building B on Saturday.

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Juan Garcia of Brunswick County Academy.

The inaugural RoboCon 2016, which brought together educational, corporate and non-profit groups, focused on the role robotics could have in leading students into successful careers in technology and the sciences.

“From Kindergartners to high school seniors, everyone can get involved,” Juan Garcia said. 

Garcia, a freshman at Brunswick Community Academy, is on the marketing team for his school’s robotics team.

“The RoboCon is really about all the things you can learn, from coding to engineering, math and public relations,” he said. “It’s about getting ready for the future.”

Marketing teams, for example, learn about how sponsorship and grants work. But it’s not just practice for real world jobs in the future; students like Garcia help make the advanced robotics teams, who can have budgets of up to $30,000, possible.

For Inspiration & Recognition of Science & Techonology (FIRST) is the organization behind the robotics competitions featured at the convention. Noah Klein, an art teacher at Bolivia Elementary School, has just started working with FIRST to teach his second grade students about technology. Throughout the convention, he gave a series of short presentations of what FIRST can do for students.

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Noah Klein, art teacher and STEM instructor from Bolivia Elementary School.

“Students construct their robots from Legos, but they’re real robots. They do the coding on iPads, it’s a visual coding that’s easier for the kids. But the really are engineering, building and remotely controlling these robots. It prepares them to do much more advanced things down the line.”

Klein ultimately plans to expand his program to cover grades two through five, giving students a jump on more advanced levels of robotics. He described FIRST’s four stages.

“They start with the Lego League, Jr., and work their way up to increasingly complicated robots, ultimately, they’re designing and building robots from scratch,” he said. “These are teams made up of students from Brunswick, Pender and New Hanover County, the students are doing all the coding and going off to state and international competitions.”

Video: FIRST Lego League (Grades 4-8), Robots from Leland Middle and Waccamaw School

Klein is the husband of Claire McLaughlin, the convention’s organizer.

“I might be a little biased,” said Klein of McLaughlin’s work to bring technology to Brunswick schools. McLaughlin is the chair of the Brunswick County Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Council.

STEM works closely with Port City Robotics, a nonprofit group that supports FIRST robotics teams in the Cape Fear area. The two help develop relationships between educational resources and business leaders, helping students parlay their experiences with FIRST challenges into continuing education and employment.

Local businesses like Duke Energy, Corning, Quintify and several TekMountain startups – many of whom employ FIRST team alumni – have provided both financial support and mentoring to FIRST robotics teams.

Port City Robotics maintains a sponsorship page, where those interested can donate their time, expertise or financial assistance. To learn more about STEM and the role robotics can play in education and career planning, visit FIRST’s website.

Below: photos of the convention.

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Lexi Gilliland, of Cedar Grove Middle School, repairs “The Conqueror,” her team’s robot.

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Retired North Brunswick teacher – and recent county Board of Education candidate – William Flythe shows a young student how to operate a robot. “Go easy on the gas now,” said Flythe.
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A FIRST Lego League robot.

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The Wired Wizards, a FIRST Robotics Competition Team, also (more than) dabble in virtual reality. Here, in an extension of their computer coding experience, a team-members roams a virtual forest, armed with a bow and arrow.