Mechatronics robot building challenge spreads to Surrey School District

March 25, 2013

This spring break, close to 80 boys from the Surrey School District are getting a taste for engineering by building sumo-battling robots at Simon Fraser University.

The boys, aged nine to 12, are in the district’s Sticks and Stars program where they experience a range of activities designed to expand their personal and academic interests, and help them set goals. The district has identified the last years of elementary school as a pivotal point in developing positive interests and relationships, before peer pressure is more difficult to overcome.

SFU’s Mechatronic Systems Engineering (MSE) program participates in Sticks and Stars by offering a two-day robot building and sumo battle challenge at its Surrey campus. MSE assistant professor Krishna Vijayaraghavan oversees the program. Energetic MSE undergraduate students provide positive role models, helping the boys in the intricate assembly of the Lego Mindstorm robots, and the programming required to make them move based on sensors. On the second day of their visit, the boys compete in a sumo battle round robin, and then a final match to claim the ultimate victor.

Cougar Creek Elementary teacher John Kwon, who accompanied his Grade 4/5 class to the session, sees the difference it makes in the boys’ lives. He says the Lego experience has encouraged the boys to discuss their prospective academic possibilities, with some of them expressing interest in attending SFU in the future.

“To have something in a school environment and work as a team – they’re experiencing success and fun. That’s really important,” said Kwon. “This got them thinking about their own education, owning it and considering it important.”

In addition, the sessions give the mechatronics students the opportunity to act as mentors and gain teaching and leadership skills. This is the second year SFU has participated as a program partner in Sticks and Stars.

“This has been a rewarding way for SFU students to apply their engineering knowledge to engage youngsters in the community,” said Vijayaraghavan. “It’s been fun for us to deliver this program to the Surrey School District.”

Through collaborative and creative activities, such as robot building, ball hockey and science exploration, the aim of Sticks and Stars is to build confidence and leadership skills in young boys who may otherwise be more susceptible to negative societal influences.

Sticks and Stars originated in 2010 as a Saturday afternoon basketball session in the Cougar Creek Elementary school gym, accompanied by a weekly leadership lesson. Greg Hopps, former vice-principal, together with former principal Raminder Randhawa, realized that fifth grade is when boys begin picking up on social trends, video and online gaming and peer pressure. In 2011, the program spread to two schools, and it currently hosts a total of four schools.