DeKALB – During the school day, Michael Lofthouse teaches math at DeKalb High School.
After work, he helps students use their mathematical knowledge toward real-life applications when participating in the DeKalb Crowbotics Team.
Eighteen students form a competitive team, meeting 12 hours a week after school to design and build robots. This years’ team members are all DeKalb High School students, though eighth graders have made the cut in previous years.
“The students learn how to apply their academic skills from the classroom into a technical program,” Lofthouse said. “It’s STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] in action.”
As the team’s faculty adviser, Lofthouse said he oversees the students’ ideas and work, but he does so at a distance.
“It’s important for the students to take their ideas and run with them, for them to try and test out things,” he said. “They have the ability to design, build and redesign. A lot of failure will happen, and the learning process isn’t only what went wrong, but why. There’s not only a right and wrong way to do something. Problem-solving and teamwork are needed.”
Lofthouse and mechanical engineer Adam Van Boekel co-founded the DeKalb Crowbotics Team in 2016. The robotics team was named after DeKalb’s mascot, Spike the crow.
“The team is teaching kids a constructive way to compete,” Van Boekel said. “This is one sport that everyone can go pro, whether they become a programmer, designer or engineer. The team is great because the students are learning alongside professionals.”
Van Boekel was a member of Oswego High School’s robotics team when he was younger.
“I always liked mathematics, science and building stuff, and I took those interests and turned it into a career,” Van Boekel said. “I like that there’s always more than one creative solution to a problem. Science and technology are very broad fields. There’s a lot of directions you can take it and a lot of jobs you can do utilizing the skills you learn.”
The DeKalb Crowbotics Team has been building a robot, nicknamed “Skeletor,” which competed at First Robotics Competition’s Midwest Regional April 6 through April 9 at UIC’s Credit 1 Arena in Chicago. The robot climbed ascending bars, similar to a challenge on the TV show “American Ninja Warrior.” The Crowbotic’s robot Skeletor advanced into the quarterfinals and placed 26th out of 50 teams in the competition.
Sophomore Blake Bollow said that he joined the team because he hopes to one day have a career in engineering.
“I have a 3-D printer at home, and I like to design and build stuff for fun,” Bollow said. “I joined the team this year, and it’s been a lot of fun. What’s cool about it is that everyone has different ideas and solutions. Everyone has a different way of how to approach the challenge. Every problem has multiple solutions.”
Junior Will Stamatakos joined the team his freshman year after moving to DeKalb from Sycamore.
“I’ve always been interested in robotics, and I like that you actually get to build a robot, not just learn about how to,” Stamatakos said.
Team Captain Leah Valentiner, a senior who has been on the team since she was a freshman, said what keeps her involved is that she is always learning new things.
“It’s more than an after-school activity,” she said. “I’m constantly using things I’ve learned in the classroom and applied them to building a robot. I love learning new things, and I learn something new every time I’m here.”
Valentiner said that members of the team do all of the design process, with encouragement and assistance from the advisers as needed.
“We [students] get to do all of the design process,” Valentiner said. “It starts with our thoughts and ideas, then prototyping, designing, experimenting, building and then trial and error until we go to compete. … Everything is computer-based, involving technology, coding and logic.”
Lofthouse said that the students’ work building a robot together as a team teaches them 21st Century skills.
“When I was younger, we had RC cars and that was it,” Lofthouse said. “Now students have 3-D printers, CNC machines and laptops. They’re building robots that operate using code. The goal is that [as advisers], we’re a guiding hand that’s giving direction, and the students are the ones building the robot. We’re helping the next generation get started, building a snowball that will only grow bigger and better over time.”