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High school girls put their coding and programming skills to use in a week-long MATC program

In a Sixth Street classroom just north of Highland Avenue, across the street from the new Milwaukee Bucks Arena construction site, a dozen high school girls are building and programming robots.

Students Eunice Marrero-Rivera (left) and Mary McDonald work on writing code for their robot

Students Eunice Marrero-Rivera (left) and Mary McDonald work on writing code for their robot; Photo by James Stukenberg

Tatiana Lugo and Ashley Thornton react to their robot’s unsuccessful trial run.

Tatiana Lugo and Ashley Thornton react to their robot’s unsuccessful trial run; photo by James Stukenberg

A student-built robot successfully performs one of its functions by lifting and loading a cube.

A student-built robot successfully performs one of its functions by lifting and loading a cube; photo by James Stukenberg

These aren’t Robbie the Robot, HAL or Lt. Cmdr. Data – they’re simple, wheeled machines made with plastic, snap-together kits. It’s a one-week robot camp for high school girls at MATC, and electronics instructor Tom Heraly is explaining how to use a graphically based computer application to program instructions into the assembled gadgets, which resemble toy trucks.

Working in pairs and tapping away at computer keyboards, the teenagers build a string of commands for a sequence of simple tasks: advance a distance of a little more than six feet, pick up a plastic cube, then carry it back to the starting point. The students calculate things like how gear ratios in the machinery determine the details of the instructions they have to write.

Mary McDonald and Eunice Marrero-Rivera have created their version of the program and uploaded it to their creation. But something isn’t working quite right. On the low-walled white table that is their test field, their robot rolls forward, seems to grab the red cube, but can’t hang on to it.

They take the setback in stride with gently snarky humor: “When it gets to the teenage stage, your robot will not do anything you say,” McDonald snaps in mock indignation. “Disrespectful robot!” She pauses. “Maybe it just doesn’t like the color red, ever think of that?”

About to start her sophomore year at Divine Savior Holy Angels High School, McDonald found out about this summer camp at MATC through her after-school robotics club. “I’ve always liked computers,” she says – her father is in IT – “but I’m more of the mechanical type. I was just playing with Legos before I got here.”

The coding and programming is what attracted McDonald’s teammate. Marrero-Rivera moved to Milwaukee with her family from Puerto Rico two years ago and is a senior at Tenor High School, one of a network of nonprofit charter schools affiliated with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Marrero-Rivera’s interests range from writing science fiction stories to video gaming and mathematics: “I like everything that has to do with technology,” she says.

A partnership between Tenor High School and MATC will bring Marrero-Rivera and other Tenor classmates to the college for tuition-free, college-credit classes in their senior year, getting them a jumpstart on their college educations. ◆


‘State Fair Sampler!’ appears in the August 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning July 31, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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