Willamette student engineers team of robotics champions

Willamette University undergraduate Collin Skiles '13 is using his computer science know-how to give back to the community and cultivate the next generation of scientists — and his work is reaping huge benefits for a group of local elementary and middle school students.

Skiles coaches a team that participates in the FIRST LEGO Robotics League, a program that introduces children to the fundamentals of engineering, biomedicine and teamwork through building robots.

Under Skiles' leadership, the team of seven forged a bond that has carried them to the state level of competition, an honor they earned after finishing in the top two at a recent regional event.

"This is a great example of how an individual Willamette student can leverage the resources of the university — a space to meet, computers to use, a knowledgeable coach and a person to coordinate the opportunity — to give back to the community," says Gaelen McAllister, Willamette youth programs coordinator, who helped organize the team and apply for grants.

Skiles, a computer science major, was initially hired to teach Beginning Robotics for Willamette's Saturday Explorations, a weekend enrichment program for local fifth- through eighth-graders. His class opened the door to forming the team.

At the regional competition, they battled 18 other teams, completing a robot challenge, a biomedical engineering challenge and an impromptu teamwork challenge. They were interviewed extensively at each phase of the competition and had no help from adults.

Skiles' team designed an iPhone application that sends electric pulses to the brain to stimulate short-term memory.

The team is one of many that formed this year for students in the Salem-Keizer School District after receiving grants and other support from the Oregon Robotics Tournament and Outreach Program (ORTOP), Salem-Keizer Education Foundation and Garmin International, a satellite navigation company.

"Oregon has a well-established high technology industry, and we're looking for kids to be able to fill those jobs," Cathy Swider, project administrator for ORTOP, recently told the Statesman Journal newspaper. "We want kids to make Oregon a better place through science and engineering, and one way to do it is through LEGO League."

McAllister attributes the Willamette team's success to the structure and technique of Skiles' program, which emulates an adult working environment. Team meetings start with a younger student leading discussions on goals and delegating tasks for the team. Halfway through the meeting, they evaluate their progress, and again at the end of the four-hour block. 

"Learning to be collaborative is tricky for everyone, especially fifth-, sixth- and seventh-graders, so the overall goal of the program — teaching the children to work together in a self-directed way — was essential to the team's success," McAllister says.

The state championship will take place on Jan. 15-16 in Hillsboro, Ore.