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Seven years ago, Joel Bruxvoort, a science teacher at Jefferson High School in Daly City, California, started a robotics club as an afterschool program. Now, his club has two teams competing in events for FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), an international youth organization developed to advance STEM subjects around the world. I met up with Joel at the San Mateo Maker Faire to find out what it takes to coach and a run a robotics team.
Barry Matties: Joel, I was talking to Ken Johnson and Jill Wilker earlier about how the FIRST program is reaching into the public school curriculum. Why don't you tell me a little bit about your experience with it?
Bruxvoort: I have a robotics club that I run multiple teams off. This is my seventh year doing it, and it started as an afterschool club. It still is mainly an afterschool club, but I am also getting ready to start teaching it for the first time as a UC-approved elective class. I’m looking forward to that.
Matties: In terms of the club, how many of the students are there?
Bruxvoort: I have about 25 students actively involved in the club on one to two teams. Right now I have two teams at the Maker Faire and two robots on the field.
Matties: Do the students start from the ground up and build the robots?
Bruxvoort: Yes, it's very important to get those basic skills, all the way from using tools and basic programming skills, to give them as much experience as they can at all different levels. I really like having multiple years with the kids, because if they’re hesitant on something, I can teach them, get them confident and build up their skills over time.
Matties: How is your program funded?
Bruxvoort: We have one benefactor who gives us a couple thousand dollars a year. Then we do our own fund-raising. As a teacher, I also get a stipend for running the club.
Matties: How much money on an annual basis does it take to run a club with 25 students?
Bruxvoort: It depends on what you want to do. My first year, I ran the club for less than $2,000. This year, I'm investing in buying equipment, getting a whole new set of computers, and building up that. I've been investing in the field and in hardware. My fundraising is better this year, so I'm going to be spending about $7,000 on the club.
Matties: And that gives you a good foundation of technology and building materials?
Bruxvoort: Yes, exactly. Now I really have the capability of having probably three teams fully functional with everything they need within that. Computers are available and basic shop tools, which I've been building up over time as well.
Matties: Does the school give you space to operate your club?
Bruxvoort: As a physics teacher, I've been able to operate out of my classroom; but we just got a new science building and there is a room that’s been given to me so the club actually has a robotics room. That room will transition as the robotics space next year. Also, the plan is to have a Maker class come in, so it will be a shop for robotics and making.
Matties: This is great, because the cost of higher education, obviously, is not achievable for everybody. To give the foundation of these skills at such an early age, you're changing kids' lives, actually. So we've talked about the mechanics and the financial side. Tell me a little about the impact on the kids. What do you see?
Bruxvoort: I see tremendous growth in what the kids can do. Robotics is appealing to some who want to go and do it. Also, there's a lot of scary things about it. What's nice and what I like about FTC (FIRST TechChallenge, one of the four FIRST programs) is it's very approachable. It's meant to be trial and error, so you can get in and explore something new, and fix it if it doesn't work. That iterative process of learning allows the students to try something new, and the cost of failure isn't too high. That's really good.
Matties: In terms of their confidence and self-esteem in this area, how's that?
Bruxvoort: They build skills, which takes them to the next level. They can try things, and they learn, and then they can try something more complicated. There's always a new cycle of kids who've never touched programming. I can introduce them to the basic ones, and then when they master that, they've got that strength to build to the next one.
Matties: That's great. It seems like it is more than just robotics.
Bruxvoort: It's not just robotics; there's the whole engineering notebooks to get the students thinking as an engineer. There is a design part, and there's outreach capabilities, so the kids are getting out of the classroom, going to events, or talking to other groups. We go to the library, we go to schools, and we're here at the Maker Faire. The kids get to talk and explain what's going on about the program, and they get better and better as we keep doing it. It's a lot of fun to see.
Matties: I really appreciate you spending time with us, sharing. Are there any closing thoughts that you want to share?
Bruxvoort: I have to say it's just a great program, because you can get started easily and then just grow from there.
Matties: Great. Thank you so much.