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Andover Offers Robotics as New Athletic Option

T. WEI/The Phillipian

The team of 19 students hopes to make its way to the VEX Robotics Regional Championships in March 2020.

After classes end, Emily Mae Murtha ’22 doesn’t follow the herds of students walking to Borden Memorial Gym or the Snyder Center for their sport. Instead, Murtha’s sport takes her into the Oliver Wendell Holmes Library (OWHL) and down a flight of stairs to The Nest. There, Murtha joins a group of peers to take part in Andover’s competitive robotics team.

For the Fall and Winter Terms, robotics will be offered as an athletic option coached by Robert Hickman, Instructor of Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science, along with Benjamin Peters, Makerspace Coordinator of Engineering and Robotics. The sport prepares students for the VEX Robotics Competition, a world-wide tournament in which teams compete using robots they build and code themselves. Andover’s team will enter five to six competitions between now and the end of Winter Term, with the goal of making it to the VEX Regional Championships.

While Murtha was hesitant about joining the robotics team at first, she has since come to enjoy the sport for its dynamic learning opportunities. She looks forward to building upon past robot designs with her team.

“Initially, I was a little nervous because I had no experience with robotics prior to joining the sport, but it is quite fun and I’ve been learning a lot. We’re basically just building the robot that the strategy team has designed, [based on] designs the team has been using for a couple of years, and we’re going to innovate them by building a new and improved robot. I really like [robotics], it’s probably the highlight of my day,” said Murtha.

Andover’s new robotics program was implemented by Michael J. Barker, Director of Academy Research, Information, and Library Services, Clyfe Beckwith, Assistant Head of School for Teaching and Learning, and Lisa Joel, Director of Athletics. According to Hickman, the decision to offer robotics as a sport was facilitated by the recent renovation of the OWHL.

“Barker had a vision of putting [a robotics area] in the Makerspace. So with the renovation of the OWHL and of The Nest, there was this opportunity to launch a competitive robotics team in this space and it was just a really natural fit. Our administrators saw that opportunity and were very supportive of it,” Hickman said.

Robotics as a sport begins with the fundamentals of building a robot before splitting off into three teams devoted to building, programming, and strategy. The team consists of 19 people of different experience levels, which CC Song ’21, Co-President of Robotics Club, sees as an advantage for the group.

Song said, “With the club my first and second year, I was for sure one of the least experienced and I was learning from people who were insanely smart, and with the sport I have to be more of the leader figure now, and that’s been really interesting. I think with the different skill level there’s a lot more that we can learn, so here we’re starting from the beginning and working through the basics and even with someone with a lot more experience that could be really helpful to remember how the actual process works.”

For Hickman, one of the most exciting aspects of the new team is the diversity of students, particularly with respect to gender. This is something Hickman has observed to be rare in robotics teams.

“We have 19 students for the first team, which is a fantastic number, and out of that number is a very good cross sectional representation of all the different nationalities and races and genders we have on campus. We have ten girls and nine boys, a fantastic balance that’s not always found in robotic teams so I’m especially excited by that,” said Hickman.

Song echoed Hickman’s sentiment, recalling her time as the only female member of the robotics team. According to Song, this year’s balance of gender is exciting.

“By the end of last year I was the only girl at robotics, [and] it’s really important to me that women are getting into STEM and engineering. Our team right now is 19 people and there’s one more girl than boy and that’s already so cool to see. There’s so many more girls coming, so that’s really important to me, and I hope that it will keep improving moving forwards,” said Song.

According to Carolina Artacho Guerra, Instructor in Physics, robotics first appeared at Andover about four years ago in the form of a one-term elective and a club. While the club performed well in the competitions, there was a limit as to how far they could go with the time and materials they had. Artacho Guerra explained how the new athletic offering has granted the team more flexibility in their work.

“If you want to get competitive robotics that is sustainable, you need to dedicate time, energy, and resources. It’s not fair to ask students to put their time in academics, sports, extracurriculars, and on top make the commitment to actually be part of the team. We’re hoping for balance and sanity. You don’t have to sacrifice your sleep just to get into robotics,” said Artacho Guerra.

While Hickman hopes that the team will be successful in the upcoming competitions, he is also looking forward to the program’s development as a whole. Hickman expects to see further growth and collaboration in the years to come.

“I hope we go far, but that’s not the absolute goal. The goal is to have a really successful program, and we’re on a good start. After that, we want to just build that cumulative experience year after year after year, where students of different skill levels are sharing with one another and gaining more and more skills,” Hickman said.