Luke Ostly looked puzzled as he stood over a boxy hunk of steel, wire and motors that failed to move.

“What’s wrong with the robot?” Ostly asked as a huddle of his teammates — all Chipman Jr. High School students — examined the machine they affectionately refer to as Señor Hamilton.

“Autonomous in 3,2,1,” a student called out again and again as she flipped a remote switch. The bot sputtered.

“Bippity, boppity, go!” another student shouted at the machine in frustration.

Such a technical malfunction serves as a minor frustration at Chipman Jr. High during a regular weekday afternoon — something to be fiddled with by a brainy group of robotics club students who spend hours each week slaving over the machine — but next week, when these students travel up the coast for a state competition, such a snafu could cost the group of kids their shot at a title.

The students from Chipman Jr. High and four other schools within the Bakersfield City School District are traveling Sunday to Vallejo, north of the Bay Area, for the VEX EDR State Robotics Competition.

They’ll be joined there with students from Cato Middle School, Compton Jr. High, Emerson Middle School and Downtown School, all of which have after-school robotics clubs supported by Project Lead The Way, a Chevron-funded Science, Technology, Engineering and Math-based program.

While there, they’ll take robots they built themselves and put them in a ring and task them with picking up foam cones, stacking them atop one another and placing them in certain marked zones for bonus points. The robots themselves look like high tech Erector sets (think of the bot that retrieved the lost baseball from "The Sandlot", but on steroids). They take months to build.

Students from Chipman Jr. High spent six months crafting theirs, spending one hour after school three days per week in their extracurricular robotics club. If most of the club members are honest, though, they logged lots of additional hours — most weeks as many as 12 hours, staying late and coming in on Saturdays as they designed, redesigned, programmed and built their bot.

Students have bought into the program because it affords them the kind of instant gratification they aren’t always able to see in traditional classrooms, said Dusty Wittman, a Chipman math teacher and engineering major who leaped at the chance to coach the team.

“It’s the visualization of hard work,” Wittman said, adding that when his team started this year, they had no robotics skills whatsoever.

“Most of them had never built anything in their entire lives. We had to start from nothing and learn about basic construction and building practices,” Wittman said.

Eventually, students got the hang of it and began defining their roles on the team. Some took more to computer programming, giving the robot the life it needed to move across the field autonomously and pick up a cone.

Others were better at engineering, thinking up improvements to give them an edge — like a rack-and-pinion system that lifts the robot over foam speed bumps on the field and into high-point zones so they can score more points.

By stressing problem solving, critical thinking skills, communication and collaboration in a hands-on-learning environment the robotics program prepares students to compete in the global economy, said Brandon Ware, BCSD coordinator of curriculum.

“All the things we do on a daily basis as adults is what you see exhibited at any robotics competition and magnified at the state level,” Ware said. “It's really leading students to understand how to perform jobs yet to be created — things we can’t fathom.”

More importantly, it has bolstered the kids’ immediate problem-solving skills and made them better students.

“There’s more perseverance,” Wittman said of the students who are in both his robotics club and math class in school.

Before, students might have given up if they couldn’t solve a math problem right away, he said. “Now, they muscle through a problem until it's right.”

“I will say that I rarely have kids as excited about math as I do about robotics,” Wittman added with a chuckle.

Harold Pierce covers education and health for The Californian. He can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter @RoldyPierce

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