Machine/Learning

By Sacha Zimmerman

The Sidwell Friends Robotics Club is creating the next generation of technology that moves.

The rubber duckie is not doing the robot any favors. The duckie spins, falls, and lands directly on the robot’s intricate circuitry. The spinning and falling—that’s all part of the plan. Landing on exposed components is not. “Maybe just put on some housing or a top on it,” says Darby Thompson, the director of Upper School Technology and Computer Science at Sidwell Friends. She’s also the robotics coach. Soon a student comes by with a small flat piece of plastic to attach to and protect the robot. It works. The rubber duckie spins, falls, and cheerfully bounces off and away from the robot. The junior-year robotics team can now move on to the subtler art of coding the robot to move and stop at very specific positions. Their team name for the upcoming competition? Robo-Duckies.

THE ROBOT UPRISING

About a dozen years ago, Sidwell Friends School reached an inflection point: Offering the odd computer-related elective and simply providing computers was a far cry from rigorously teaching computer science and programming. And as technology was playing an ever-increasing role in all aspects of people’s lives, it became apparent that computer science was no longer relegated to engineers and hobbyists; everyone needed to become familiar and comfortable with computers. The early 2000s exploded with music-streaming services, wildly realistic video games, and online journalism and blogging. In 2004 alone, culture-changers like Facebook and YouTube launched. By 2010, Sidwell Friends was on the hunt for a tech-savvy educator to start up a computer science curriculum at the School.

That’s where Thompson comes in. She had been finish- ing her PhD in computer science at George Washington University when she learned about the position at Sidwell Friends. “I was going to be a college professor,” she says. “I thought I’d just try out this high school thing for a year.” But Thompson didn’t realize just how compelling the Sidwell Friends students would be. “I loved teaching at GW, but I didn’t know how much I would love teaching here,” she says. “Sidwell kids are extremely smart, and unlike college students, they always show up, are not sleeping, and are interested in learning. I tweaked the GW curriclum, and I came here, and the kids just lapped it up. It was too much fun!” Twelve years later, Thompson is still at the helm of the Sidwell Friends computer science program and the Robotics Club.

“Club” really undersells it, though. With anywhere from 40 to 80 students participating in any given year, a substantial percentage of the Upper School is involved. The kids in Robotics Club can spend an hour a day or so during free periods or afterschool throughout the week in the lab. Then, on Friday nights, they can stay in the robotics lab until 8 p.m. And because even that isn’t enough, they can also come in for four hours every Sunday. “I’m working on boundaries,” Thompson says unconvincingly one re- cent Friday evening. She is surrounded by dozens of students—with more seeming to pop in every few minutes.

Working in small teams of four to eight students, the kids not only build robots, they build the practice spaces, too— like a large arena with mats surrounded by plexiglass, or a giant water tank for aquatic endeavors. They even design their own team logos, which they hot-press onto t-shirts. The students then refine their projects, constantly adjust- ing the coding to get their robots to move precisely. Sophia Flores ’23, for example, is on the floor manually making adjustments to the Robo Duckie’s robot while Andrew Duprie ’23 estimates distances and angles, and Langston Johnson ’23 stands at a laptop programming in all of their suggestions. Peeking over Johnson’s shoulder is like watching the hacker from Mr. Robot as the Sidwell Friends junior’s fingertips fly across the keyboard entering all manner of xs, slashes, and colons. Meanwhile, the Robo Duckie bot—an 18-inch cross between WALL-E, a Roomba, and a NASA Mars rover—diligently picks up large Lego-like bricks (with mechanical claws the team designed and then 3D-printed) and places them in baskets, all before it makes its way to home base before time is called.


THE ROBOT TAKEOVER

“What Darby Thompson has created here is tremendous,” says Head of School Bryan Garman. “She has grown not only the computer-science program, but she has grown and nurtured this whole world of robotics and competitions.” Indeed, part of the appeal of the Robotics Club is the competition—and Sidwell Friends excels in competition, from regional to international meets.

In the fall, the students start with a challenge issued by FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a nonprofit devoted to inspiring science and technology innovation and leadership in young people. Every year, Capitol Technology University in Maryland hosts the Chesapeake Regional remote kickoff for the inter- national FIRST Tech Challenge, or “FTC.” Then students, like the Sidwell Friends RoboDuckies, compete with their own robotic inventions. The theme of this year’s FTC was “Freight Frenzy,” a “race against time to transport essential goods and explore the future of transportation.”

In the spring, the students turn their attention to the Marine Advanced Technology Education, or “MATE,” challenge. The MATE ROV (remotely operated vehicle) competition is exclusively for underwater robotics and is run by a nonprofit committed to helping young people find creative science and technology solutions for real-world problems. This year’s theme is “United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development,” which asks students to design and build their ROV to do nothing less than combat global climate change.

The focus on solving real-world issues, whether supply- chain logistics or environmental degradation, is by de- sign and, for some students, illuminates a potential career path. Samuel Rabinowitz ’17, for one, spent all four of his Upper School years at Sidwell Friends participating in the Robotics Club—and did the same at Duke University, where the robotics lab was open a beguiling 24 hours a day! Now, Rabinowitz is a software development engineer with Amazon Robotics in Boston, where real-world problem-solving is very much the mission. For example, Amazon found that its warehouse employees were suffering numerous stress injuries and fractures as a result of constantly reaching above or below their heads to pick up items. Even lightweight objects were problematic because of the repetitive stress on muscles and joints. So, Rabinowitz’s team at Amazon created a robotic arm that can pick bins of items off shelves and bring them up or down to an employee’s waist height, improving workplace safety and limiting injuries. “I like coding, I like put- ting it all together, and I like making people’s lives easier,” he says. “Some of the robotics at Amazon, in terms of the problems they’re solving, are having a huge impact.”

Ironically, Rabinowitz initially did not even want to join the Robotics Club at Sidwell Friends. It turns out that by 14, he was already familiar with the concept of the “uncanny valley,” the relationship between an object’s degree of resemblance to a human being and the emotional response to the object. The more robots look like real human beings, the less human beings like them. In a word, disturbingly anthropomorphized humanoids are, well, creepy. Rabinowitz was pleased to learn that the Robotics Club robots look like machines not people, and, as a naturally inquisitive tinkerer, he decided to give it a shot. “Literally, within the first meeting, I was done,” he says. “I mean, I knew that was the club I was going to be in for all of high school.”

THE ROBOT RENAISSANCE

Until recently, the Sidwell Friends robotics lab had been housed below the Fox Den in a basement space bursting at the seams. But with the acquisition of the Upton Street property, the team has migrated to the airy, open spaces on the first level of what will be the new Upper School. For the robotics students, that meant hauling massive lab tables and a veritable hardware store of materials across campus.

Even with the luxury of space, Thompson is looking forward to the new robotics lab. “I signed up for the Architecture Committee Executive Group for the new School on day one,” she says. “I knew we needed a better space, and my voice had to be in the mix.” The new Upper School will include a Science Commons with a dedicated robotics lab, as well as space for individual student projects. There will even be a retractable glass wall to unite the indoors and outdoors to really test the robots’ mettle.

For now, the Upton Atrium is overflowing with neon orange trays full of screws, bolts, wires, and various components. Six-foot-high towers brim with plastic tubes, metal hinges, and tools. There’s a 3D printer, work benches, computers, and clusters of teenage innovators everywhere with blue- prints and electric drills. It is robot utopia.

It is also a mix of all class years from 9th to 12th. “Because all the grades are together,” says Thompson, “there’s a mentorship that occurs that you just don’t see in classes.” The diversity of the group doesn’t end there: Athletes and artists mix effortlessly in robotics, and easily half of the students are female. Thompson attributes this to the nature of robotics itself. There’s something for everyone: elements of planning and design, engineering, and fabrication, and computer science.

There is also, of course, strategy. “We have to be nimble and fast,” says Johnson of the RoboDuckies. “So we can make everything perfect, but then we risk running out of time.” Thompson reminds them to change one tiny de- tail at a time, so they can track what is and isn’t working. “Then run it at least three times before moving on,” she warns. “It has to be consistent.”

THE ROBOT ALLURE

On a snowy Sunday in February, around 50 students are darting around the robotics lab. Thompson somehow manages to look relaxed as she answers an endless stream of questions from the budding engineers. At one worktable, a team of four freshmen is building a component they’ll need for the MATE ROV challenge. When asked, “Why robots?” Sidney Heiges ’25 lights up and happily says, “Because... robots!” Being a Sidwell Friends student, she immediately wants to give a more intellectual answer. But she’s right: Because robots! They capture the collective imagination, create moral quandaries (think Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, or Alex Garland’s Ex Machina), challenge us to innovate—and, not insignificantly, they’re just plain cool. As Alan Turing once said, “Machines take me by surprise with great frequency.”

BECAUSE... ROBOTS!”

But Garman thinks there’s more to it than that. “It’s not robots,” he says. “It’s being inspired by a teacher’s enthusiasm and then becoming more fascinated by computer science.” In other words, Thompson is the secret sauce. Rabinowitz would agree. “The amount of support I got from Darby and the amount of support I got from this club,” he says, “really did mean a ton to me the entire time I was at Sidwell.” He is excited that the club is getting a new home, but he remembers the basement under the Fox Den fondly. “I could walk through that space blindfolded and just know where everything was,” as well as “where all the people who typically were there were sitting. It really did form a lot of my Sidwell experience.”

That experience is multidivisional. Every single Sidwell Friends student is part of a one-to-one program for lap- tops or iPads. In Lower School, students tell personal stories using small rolling robots called Spheros and rely on platforms like Scratch to start coding. Middle Schoolers experiment with creating their own video games and have the opportunity to build rewired electric cars for children with disabilities through the Go Baby Go! program. Kids across divisions also learn that big robotics projects are inherently collaborative. “It’s coming together to make something great,” says Deanna Paukstitus ’25.

The Upper School Robotics Club, however, does offer Paukstitus a little something more: “creative freedom.” The access to materials, the freedom to design whatever comes to mind, and the magic of “seeing something you built move,” have captivated her. Thompson has found the holy grail: convincing students that homework is actually play.

Thompson’s obvious enjoyment is infectious. In her company, watching the RoboDuckies nail a trick after adjusting the robot’s trajectory by millimeters is enough to make you cheer, fist-pump, and yell, “Nailed it!” Thompson smiles, “My heart is here,” she says with a casual shrug before getting pulled away by her students’ inquiries.

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