Tomorrow’s masters of machinery live in the East Kootenay

Robotics competitions are being dominated by this East Kootenay school

The Mount Baker Secondary School robotics program consists of (L to R) Dominic Lucas, Cesar Garcia Moreno, instructor Bill Walker, Thomas Keene and Ryley Holliday.

The Mount Baker Secondary School robotics program consists of (L to R) Dominic Lucas, Cesar Garcia Moreno, instructor Bill Walker, Thomas Keene and Ryley Holliday. — Photo courtesy Bill Walker

So far, the machines haven’t risen up to kill us like in the Terminator movies. Until that happens, the robots obey us. But who controls the machines being made today for tomorrow? Bill Walker and students at Cranbrook’s Mount Baker Secondary School, that’s who! Walker teaches teenagers how to invent and utilize robots. Thanks to his guidance, students have been inspired, won awards, and used their newfound skills towards higher education. Looks like futuristic robots are in good hands after all. 

Walker’s love of robots began at an early age and his interest has never waned. “To me, they’re really neat,” he said. “I like the challenge.”

Since 2009, Walker has been running the robotics program at Mount Baker on his own time. It’s extra work for him as well as the students who take part in the club. They receive no extra credit or benefits from taking part in the program other than the satisfaction of creating something special from wire and metal.

“I like to see what some of the kids come up with,” said Walker. “Sometimes it seems outrageous, but they work.”   

Experimentation

Walker and a group of eight students meet together at lunchtime, after school or weekends to build robots capable of carrying out tasks set out by Skills Canada. These challenges include things like playing hockey, crokinole and operating a forklift. “This year we’re going to fire a football,” said Walker. “We’ve tried to find all kinds of ways of doing it but I’m still not sure we’ve found the best way yet.”

Therein lies one of the most valuable lessons these students can learn in school—problem solving. “There’s a challenge and you think ‘wow, how can we do that?’ ” said Walker. “They brainstorm and try a bunch of things. In order to do what they’ve brainstormed, there’s an awful lot they need to learn how to do. It’s not like sitting in a classroom saying ‘first you need to learn this, then you need to learn this.’ We come up with the ideas and then learn what we need to. It’s a heck of a lot of trial and error.”

Who’s bots are best?

Having a goal in mind is important for motivation and something to shoot for. That’s where the Skills Canada contest comes into play. Each year the organization sends out a new 30-page document outlining the criteria such as what the robot must be able to do and the dimensions it has to fit into. There are three levels of the competition: provincial, national and the WorldSkills International, which happens every two years. The robotics club has taken home many medals over the years including a gold for best robot in B.C. three straight years and a bronze medal for all of Canada. Provincial competitions are held in Abbotsford, B.C. “You battle it out with other robots, trying to do the task better than the other guys,” Walker said. “It’s not always the best robot that wins, it’s the people who have practised the most and can operate it well.”

Creation stations

Much of the robot assembly takes place at the school in the electronics shop where Walker teaches computer programming. The shop is equipped with a bandsaw, drill press and a sizable vice. Fabrication also takes place at the shop of John Milner, a master machinist. “He helps the boys build the fancy mechanisms and ideas,” Walker said. “I wouldn’t be able to create a robot nearly as well without John Milner. We run the program together.” 

Materials used to build the robots come from all over North America, but many of the parts are sourced locally. Local businesses donate supplies or supply funds to the robotics club. “Cranbrook is a great community,” said Walker.

Maybe T-1000 and Arnold Schwarzenegger won’t bring about Armageddon after all, thanks to Bill Walker and the capable robotics students at Mount Baker Secondary School.

To see the robots in action, visit the Mount Baker Secondary School robotics website

Kyle Born

Kyle Born is a writer for Kootenay Business and his initials match that of the magazine—it must be fate that brought them together. View all of Kyle Born’s articles

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