Bad Robots, Smart Kids

Raquel Dorf

While typical middle-schoolers have spent their time gluing together papier-mâché planet displays, some Chippewa Falls students have revved engines, sharpened knives, and built homemade robots for battle.

Relying on budgets of $20 or less, 24 middle school students built their own three-pound combat robots last fall. Each machine was equipped with weapons and drove around an arena, attempting to push other robots into hazards in head-to-head battles.

The rules were simple: No flamethrowers, no grenades, and no live animals.

The objective was equally clear: Be the last robot standing.

On Nov. 14, Chippewa Falls Middle School hosted its 15th annual Machines Behaving Badly Tournament, the finale of an after-school robotics class. The two-minute matches were wildly entertaining, as audience members watched the robots saw, pound, chop, and collide with each other. “It’s not about winners and losers, it’s about winners and pieces of losers,” explained Dr. Tim Wolter, who teaches the robotics class.

The class is part of the Middle School Voyagers, an after-school program for Chippewa Falls students. The program meets every Tuesday and Thursday and offers a variety of courses for students, including babysitting classes, martial arts classes, and homework assistance. Jennifer Andress, Voyagers director, said the overall goal of the program is “to provide a safe and engaging learning environment at school and to connect students with the community.”

Wolter has been teaching the robotics class for the past 15 years. The class encourages students to explore technology and design with the object of creating their very own three-pound battlebots. “A lot of kids just aren’t used to tinkering with things,” Wolter said. The course helps change that, giving students the opportunity to take things apart and put them back together. The class aims to teach students a variety of skills, such as design, mechanics, and – most importantly – troubleshooting and the value of troubleshooting issues on their own.

Ethan Fenner, a Chippewa Falls seventh-grader, has learned a lot from his experiences in the Voyagers robotics class. “(The program) was really interesting,” he said. “I learned how to make a robot run out of scratch.” Fenner spent weeks after school perfecting his mechanical death machine. “I used plastic, wood, nails, and other materials to make my robot,” he said. The most challenging part for Fenner was getting the engine to run smoothly. But after a few test trials and failed attempts, he finally succeeded. The most rewarding part was seeing his very own creation fight to the death for both entertainment and the advancement of science. “It was really cool!” he said.