Building your own robot’s fun but the skills you learn can take you everywhere, club organizer says – Chicago Tribune
There’s more to the world of robotics than making toys move around on an obstacle course. It teaches children how to work in a team while solving real-life problems.
For brothers Maaz, Saad and Faaz Zubair, robotics has become a hobby the three of them can do together.
“My whole family enjoys it,” said Maaz, a senior at Naperville North High School. “When I was growing up I liked Transformers. Now Saad likes to build robots and I enjoy programming them.”
As well as taking robotics classes in school, the brothers participate in a Naperville after-school club called the US Engineering League-Midwest. This summer they competed in the World Robot Olympiad in Germany.
They also mentor other students.
“I teach them code and the basics of programming,” said Maaz, 17. “I hope to take computer science in college. The best thing about robotics for me is that it’s interdisciplinary. You can learn a little bit about everything, or you can specialize.”
Twelve-year-old Audrey Wang is a sixth-grader at Kennedy Junior High School. She’s one of just a handful of girls who’s part of the club.
“I like that it connects you with real-life problems and you get to find a solution. For example, in our innovation project we can choose to find energy solutions,” she said. “In robotics, we have 15 mini-challenges to solve. We make our own attachment for a robot and teach it to push, pull and press. I think it’s fun.”
The club was founded by former technology consultant William Wong, who decided to make a major career change following the death of his sister in 2011.
“I decided I wanted to do something more life-fulfilling,” he said. “I started out of my basement and began offering classes through Naperville Park District in 2013. It’s grown from there, so we now have our own space next to the Fort Hill Activity Center.”
Wong comes from a long line of teachers, including his mother, grandmother and great grandfather, who recently had a university named after him in China. He is also the vice president of the Aurora Public Library Foundation Board.
In addition to robotics, his students learn coding and engineering. Wong sponsors and coaches numerous teams.
“They do have some good robotics at high school and some of my kids will compete with them, but here there is more intimacy. Sometimes it can be hard to get on those teams at school,” he said. “They can choose friends to work with who have the same likes and dislikes. I’ve created a community.”
So, what kinds of kids are attracted to robotics?
“They are typically not into sports; this is their sport,” Wong said. “It’s an intellectual sport that uses their minds more than their physical side. They tend to be very good academically, very good with math. They like video games like Minecraft.
“They are introverts but these kids are the future leaders of tomorrow. In this environment they grow and flourish. A lot of my students have already gone through college and are starting up careers in engineering, automotives and computer software. Eighty-five percent are boys, although girls tend to be better students, more mature, not as crazy.”
Wong has degrees in electrical engineering and business, and worked as a strategic consultant for 20 years.
“My attitude is always positive,” he said. “Learning how to work together, not just hard skills but soft skills, like how to work in a team. You want kids to solve problems on their own and be self-sufficient. My style is adaptive learning. The kids go at their own pace with ages and levels mixed in each class. I might have six kids doing six different things.”
Wong believes all children should be exposed to robotics.
“My 13-year-old daughter is more artistic so it’s not for her, but there is some overlap with technology,” he said. “You’re always using something an engineer created. It’s always good to be exposed to it, to understand it using critical thinking. When I was consulting, the partners always told me it was the engineers who were the best problem solvers.”
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Wong also takes his classes on the road. He offers programs for underprivileged students in areas like East Aurora, where they may not have been exposed to coding.
This month he accompanied students to Germany to take part in the World Robot Olympiad finals. The Olympiad is a global robotics competition that brings young people ages 8 to 19 together from across the globe. More than 85 countries, 28,000 teams and 75,000 students participate.
Two of his students teamed up to become the top US team, placing 27th out of 81, he said.
“A 10-year-old can come into my class and on the first day they will build a robot,” he said. “The first problem will be how to make it go around a chair. Nothing goes right the first time, so we consider how will we fix it?
“Going forward they say that 50 percent of tomorrow’s jobs don’t exist today. I am setting them up for jobs for tomorrow,” Wong said.
Hilary Decent is a freelance journalist who moved to Naperville from England in 2007.