Photo of Alex Guzinski and Courey Harris programming robotics

Mr. Alex Guzinski, technology coordinator at Gary Comer Youth Center, gives instructions to Courey Harris to program his car.

Photo of student Ajani Clanton researching on a computer

Ajani Clanton researched other designs to get inspiration for his team's robot.

“Mr. G — I figured it out!” Courey Harris shouted, as a small car built from Legos and other mechanical parts sped along a large table scattered with colorful block structures.

Courey, a 7th grader at Charles P. Caldwell Middle School, is one of about 15 students who meet twice a week after school to build and program robots in the computer lab of Gary Comer Youth Center, a United Way community partner in Greater Grand Crossing. There, the group of fifth through eighth graders from the South Side Chicago neighborhood learn the building blocks of academic success — critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

On that Monday afternoon, Courey was determined to program his robot car to drive forward and lift its arm attachment. Using a desktop computer program, he created a sequence of motions to download to the robot’s computer.

Upon further inspection of Courey’s car, Mr. Alex Guzinski, the center’s technology coordinator, sent him back to the drawing board to tweak his programming. “You’re so close!” Mr. Guzinski said, encouraging Courey.

Robotics Club and Classes Teach Students Critical Skills

Upon arriving at the youth center after school, the students enjoy a snack and then shuffle upstairs to Mr. Guzinski’s basic robotics class, where they work on a range of projects, from robot building and coding to 3-D printing.

Students especially interested in the program stay after class for Mr.Guzinski’s robotics club. Together, the teammates use a robotics kit of Legos, wires, motors and sensors to design, build and program a robot to compete in local and statewide competitions. The team’s robot must accomplish tasks on a mission map, a large table with structures made from Legos and other parts. To make that happen, the students program the robot to drive, lift, turn, spin and more.

“They’re getting a real boost in practicing problem solving,” Mr. Guzinski said of the skills students acquire in his robotics classes and club. “Something new students struggle with a lot is knowing how to go about solving a problem. Something will go wrong, and they’ll be like, ‘It’s broken. There’s nothing I can do.”

“A lot of what the students have to do is constantly figure out why this isn’t working,” he added. “‘What do we have to do? What do we have to change? What are the ways I have to think about solving this problem?’”

“I really like the fact that I get to build things. I don’t really use the computer at home because it’s old,” said Ajani Clanton, an 8th grader from Gary Comer Middle School, of having access to resources in the computer lab. He’s always taken an interest in engineering, as he looks up to his mom, a bridge inspector.

“You get to meet new people, and it’s fun to work together to create something new,” added Ja’mari Redwood, a 7th grader from Avalon Park Fine & Performing Arts School.

Last year, when the Gary Comer Youth Center team put their robot to the test, they made it to the state championships. The team, evenly made up of new and returning students, hopes to take home a win again at this year’s qualifying tournament in December.

In addition to demonstrating their robot, the students will also present a research project about space and accomplish an activity that will require them to show off several core skills, like innovation, inclusion and teamwork.

Though they were at first reserved about sharing their newfound knowledge, the students are enthusiastic about the opportunity to build robots together and compete.