At the Cutting Edge with WA Robotics

At the Cutting Edge with WA Robotics

In the window of the WA Robotics lab on the third floor of the Innovation Building is a sign that reads “Makkerspace.” It’s a play on “maker space,” a term for STEAM-centric places to design, build, and innovate, combined with the name of the Upper School robotics teacher, David Makkers (pronounced “mackers”).

Makkers came over this year from the Middle School, and he’s led the club through a challenging pandemic year to experience unprecedented success. WA Robotics is nationally and globally ranked for the first time, and after successfully completing two remote competitions, this spring it competed in the school’s first-ever GA First Tech Challenge State Championship, with a trip to the national competition on the line.

But even more than those achievements, Makkers said he is proudest of the hard work, camaraderie, and innovative spirit that students bring.

“The mission of our Robotics club and STEAM initiative is to inspire our students to be STEAM leaders and innovators, by engaging them in mentor-based programs that build science, engineering, and technology skills that will inspire innovative well-rounded life capabilities,” he said.

That has meant months of behind-the-scenes work in the lab, with students collaborating on coding, designing, and manufacturing a variety of robots and drones. For the state championships, they had to build a robot that could shoot out pieces of metal and hit targets in a precisely timed sequence.

With the challenges of physical distancing, this was all the harder.

“During this time our team has overcome these challenges and found new ways to adapt to find success,” Makkers said. “Our students have learned what it means to be dependable, trustworthy, dedicated, and an overall great member of our team, especially in the time of need.”

One key priority has been expanding the membership of the club so that it reflects the diversity of the overall student body. 

As Makkers knows from personal experience, people have to be exposed to robotics and see both how fun it is and how much you can grow and learn. His interest in the field started when he was young, watching movies like Robocop, Terminator 2, and Transformers.

“Robotics to me growing up was like a dream,” he said. “As I transitioned from high school through college, I remained focused on engineering and technology with robotics on the forefront. Upon graduating, I developed a passion for helping our youth in STEM education and became interested in teaching robotics.”

That led him initially to the Lower School, and then to the Middle School and, now, Upper School. In his time at Woodward, Makkers has developed several competitive robotics teams and increased student interest.

This year, the club started a panel discussion across campus about diversity and inclusion in technology, a field that often lacks diversity.

“We want to bring awareness to the differences that are often overlooked in the technology space,” Makkers said. “Many of our team members also have conducted outreach amongst some of our younger students here at Woodward in hopes of gaining their interest in robotics.”

Fittingly, a club member had just completed some quantitative analysis. WA Robotics members now are among the most diverse groups on campus. Just one more accomplishment in a year full of them.

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