So why Robotics?
By Peter Willis, Head of Computer Science

Keen observers of new trends at Abingdon School might well tell you – perhaps with a puzzled air – that the Computer Science Department appears to have gone completely mad! It is suddenly crazy about Robotics. There are Robotics sessions after school this term every day from Monday to Friday; Boarders flock to do more Robotics on Saturday mornings; Sixth Formers are running a Robotics competition and are themselves preparing to participate at a high level in the national competition ‘Student Robotics.’ Such is the wave of enthusiasm that students from other local schools have been drawn in, all learning together through valuable inter-school collaboration. A 3D printer runs steadily in Computer Science and enthusiastic Engineers from industry are involved as Mentors.
So have Mr Lomax and I lost the plot? Are we misguided? Or perhaps even suffering from overwork..?

Well, let’s step back for a moment: Both Mr Lomax and I came to Abingdon with a background in Industry, already regarding Robotics as a fascinating and evolving technology. Added to this, I brought valuable experience from teaching at University level. When challenged, I do agree that Robots have, in the past, promised too much and so have often been relegated to the realms of science fiction. However, whether we are aware of it or not, Robots are now part of life for all of us. They are key essentials across industries from surgery to manufacturing, from building cars to warehousing.

One would be forgiven for wondering whether this isn’t rather far removed from children at school playing with Robots. For a long while, I discounted Robots as merely a sink into which schools could pour money; or an expensive toy which runs through a few paces before student interest wanes, but then last year, I experienced an ‘Eureka’ moment when I experienced first hand what happens when Abingdon students start completely from scratch with a pile of wires and, initially, vague ideas, and then design and build their own Robot to carry out a precise and challenging task. This, I realised, was a completely different thing. Spurred on by my own enthusiasm, and by the support and encouragement of other staff, Abingdon students will be taking part in Student Robotics 2023 run at the University of Southampton and also building and running RoboCon Oxfordshire – a competition for students from other schools across Oxfordshire.

You see, when students design, build, program and test their own Robot, and then repeat this cycle, solving the problems that have emerged and designing improvements, they are taking part in Engineering. Every industry from medical instruments to vehicle braking systems follows exactly this same process. Engineering is multidisciplinary – it involves teamwork skills and project management, as well as combining technical expertise from Design and Technology, Electronics and Computer Science. Mr Lomax and I have watched Abingdon students exploring and relishing these links. This excites us hugely, and, as we are seeing week by week, it also excites the students. It is an experience that is already changing their career choices. Our current programme is unashamedly ambitious. Last year, in our first entry into competition at the national level, and competing against schools with many years experience, we were amongst the highest scorers. And we have already started to design and build newer and better Robots for the challenges of competition this year. The opportunities are limitless.

Whilst we may not achieve all our goals at once, one idea continually sparks another and the enthusiasm generated has been infectious and stimulating. One thing I think we can be sure of is that we are already giving students a real taste for Engineering and, with it, some understanding of the possibilities it can offer beyond the school gates.

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