Birmingham-area middle, high school students driven to succeed during Robotics Marathon

By Solomon Crenshaw Jr.

For The Birmingham Times

Teens Engineer Birmingham, an after school program held their first Robotics Marathon Weekend at the Birmingham Public Library that culminated with a  robotics competition (Frank Couch, special to The Times)
Teens Engineer Birmingham, an after school program held their first Robotics Marathon Weekend at the Birmingham Public Library that culminated with a robotics competition (Frank Couch, special to The Times)

After several minutes inside the Birmingham Public Library on a recent weekend, it was clear that the dozens of students in attendance were driven–literally.

The middle school and high school teens watched robotic cars roll around on the floor. The vehicles generally followed a designed path, adjusting their speed as they went around curves and dealt with obstacles.

But 14-year-old John Hancock and his fellow participants knew there was more than just fun going on at the Robotics Marathon in the Teen Room of the Central Library in downtown Birmingham. They were learning, too.

“Oh no, it’s not lost in the fun,” said Hancock, a home-schooled student from Pawnee. “You know you’re learning because you come in and you have no idea about what to do. Immediately afterward, you start to learn, you start to pick up how the programming and everything is done. Then you get to program your own robots.

“At that point, you know stuff,” he said, “and it’s fun along the way.”

Good for Everybody

The Robotics Marathon is a program of the Birmingham Public Library in association with the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s (UAB) School of Engineering.

“The Engineering School was looking for ways to do outreach in the community, [and] we were looking for a way to do more teaching programs with kids in the after-school program,” said library staff member Lance Simpson.

Simpson contacted UAB professor Abidin Yaldirim, director of outreach for the UAB School of Engineering, about starting an after-school program in engineering. Yaldirim, known to many as Dr. Abi, said programs like the Robotics Marathon erase the misconception that engineering is not for all.

“The bottom line of the outreach is to make engineering, any engineering, good for everybody,” he said.

During the program, instructors teach young people the language robots understand so they can follow instructions. To get the robot to follow a designed path, the student must tell it to do so.

“Computers only do exactly what you tell them to do,” Simpson said. “And they only do it in the language they understand. If you don’t tell them exactly what they need to do and don’t use a language they understand, they’re not going to do it.”

Freedom to Create

Students from across the metro area attended the Robotic Marathon. Fairfield’s Zo Shauku attended with his three siblings. The 10th grader, who was the overall winner of the weekend’s robot competition, said he had already studied robotics but took part because he wanted to learn more.

“This has been really fun,” he said. “The people here are great teachers.”

Shauku and his sisters came by their interest in robotics naturally. Their mother, Keiah Shauku, is a programmer who was formerly the director of UAB’s CampU summer camps that also were held at the library.

“I was teaching other people’s kids and figured my kids could learn, as well, so why not get them involved?” she said. “The library has been such a great resource. It’s just perfect.”

UAB students worked with the teens at the marathon.

“I like interacting with kids,” said Mohsine Taarji, who is studying for a master’s degree at UAB. “The way I look at it, I’m giving my experience to somebody else. I don’t keep stuff for myself. I like to give it to other people.”

Trial and error are key, he said.

“We like to give freedom to kids to create their own stuff, to see what they can come up with,” Taarji said. “Our goal is to help them improve what they’re thinking to make it better so they can learn from their mistakes.”