Robotics is big in the two towns. After the Columbia High School team garnered national — and even international — acclaim nearly two years ago, teams across the towns at all levels started popping up.
Local dads Davin Czukoski and Chris Marbaix — who also happen to be engineers — saw the boom through their ongoing involvement in coaching their kids and their kids' teams. But it soon became obvious that the interest from the kids outpaced their parents' abilities to coach them.
"Davin and I both had robotics teams locally," said Marbaix. "We were trying to get the FLL [First Lego League] teams organized within the neighborhood but found more kids who wanted to do it than parents who had time to coach or who knew how to do it, so we decided to start the school."
Czukoski and Marbaix's Robot Revolution is an educational enterprise specializing in teaching elementary and middle school students how to create and program real robots, using the Lego Mindstorms robot. The school launched only this past September with 18 students. By the winter session, the number of students swelled to 42.
"We are very new. But we're growing!" said Marbaix, who has made Robot Revolution his full-time job (Czukoski continues to work as an engineer by day). Classes are small—never more than eight students at a time. Locally, classes take place at Sparkhouse Kids in South Orange Village. (There are also classes at Mondo in Summit and Doodlebugz in Madison.)
Kids can learn several kinds of skills: from reasoning (inductive and deductive analysis, strategic and critical thinking), soft skills (such as leadership, perseverance, project management, work ethics, problem solving, team work) and hard skills (including applied mathematics and physics, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and computer science). The classes are based on curriculum from Carnegie Mellon University.
While acquisition of the engineering skills is a terrific benefit, Marbaix explains that the reasoning and soft skills are good no matter what career path a child eventually chooses. "It's applicable to any job you're going to go into. The ability to problem-solve is an advantage at virtually anything." Up to eight different classes can be offered from elementary school through high school. "The idea behind that progression is to show people that there is a progression in classes. As we get a class, we bring them up through the ranks, teach them more and more. There's a lot to learn."
"The first five weeks are teaching time," explained Marbaix. "The final 5 weeks are an application time, when you build your own robot and try to solve the problem we give you." Marbaix said that Robot Revolution is always trying to extend a child's knowledge. The classes also can be a break from the competitive nature of the clubs.
Marbaix said that many kids — particularly girls — want to learn about robotics but do not enjoy competition. "The classes are good for kids who want to compete — as well as those who don't, like my daughter." Besides being a great business idea, for Marbaix, Robot Revolution is a labor of love. "It's great. This is really bringing together all my loves. I've been coaching my kids and the teams since they were little" (his children are 11 and 13). Marbaix said he enjoys "watching that excitement reflected in the kids eyes" as they make breakthroughs in their training. He explains that teaching robotics also has a social aspect that was missing in his engineering career — a job that he found somewhat isolating.
As Robot Revolution grows, the founders would also like to expand its menu of services. "Our intent is to next year mentor teams and do it at a reduced cost. We would like to do that for FLL, but would really like to bring that up to a higher level for the middle school kids. Once they do VEX [which has middle school and high school divisions] for one or two years, they are absolutely ready for FTC [FIRST Tech Challenge, which is advanced high school or varsity]."
Spring sessions in South Orange will start the first week in April. The price is $395 (or $20/hour for 20 hours). For more information, visit www.robotrevolution.net.