Robotics reign in Kingston

Kingston High School — a rural institution in Kingston, Michigan — boasts an enrollment of about 200 students. Surrounded by rolling farmland, one would seldom associate Kingston High School with a bustling hub of technological advancement, but that is exactly what you would find in Matt Ferguson’s Robotics class.

The work begins before the bell. It is common to see his students working through their lunch breaks, and if they are not in the classroom for lunch, they are cutting their lunch hours short to get a jump on the work that needs to be done — work that includes electrical and mechanical engineering, computer programming and design. All of this culminates in a year-long project of building a humanoid robot called InMoov, whose design specifications are provided publicly by inventors hoping to empower educators and amateur engineers to create lifelike machines.

InMoov’s polished frame took shape in Ferguson’s classroom, first with the construction of the 3-D printers that would make its creation possible, then with the mechanical and electrical engineering expertise of Ferguson’s Robotics students. The printers were constructed in the early fall of last school year; by spring, InMoov was not only built, but had learned to move its eyes and head.

At the end of the school year, InMoov was learning facial movements via voice command. The same students who worked on InMoov — largely the children of blue-collar families — divided their time between InMoov and Robotics from January to April. Ferguson continually advocates for experiential learning opportunities like these, first through his long-time passion for STEM, as well as through his experiences as an SVSU alumnus and, most recently, a member of the Dow Corning Foundation Fellowship.

A 2005 alumnus of Saginaw Valley State University’s College of Education, Ferguson remembers that he was always “techy,” and was able to engage his talent for technology and design in the content courses that prepared him for the teaching career he has today. In fact, he cites his background in graphic design and art as a driving force behind his ability to work so innovatively with his students.

In 2016, Ferguson took further advantage of the opportunities available through SVSU to provide innovative experiences for his students, becoming a member of the second class of the Dow Corning Foundation Fellowship. Established in 2014, the fellowship was created with the intention of supporting regional middle and high school teachers in improving students’ perceptions of STEM education. This was accomplished through a two-week summer research institute, a $1,000 stipend and up to $2,000 in materials for the Fellows’ projects of choice. When selected as a Fellow, Ferguson used this opportunity to purchase the InMoov project, but the Dow Foundation’s generosity did not stop there.

“I knew that the entire project would cost a lot more than $2,000,” he said, “but the Foundation provided resources for grant writing, which I used to connect directly with the manufacturer of the parts that would be needed.”

Through this outreach, Ferguson acquired enough “servos” — the small and very expensive motors needed to construct InMoov — to complete the project at no cost to his school district.

With the Foundation’s support and academic preparation behind him, he provides unique experiences to the STEM leaders of tomorrow.

InMoov, for example, has inspired the students in Ferguson’s classroom to take ownership of a high-tech project. Ferguson recalls that, during a recent visit from members of the Dow Corning Foundation, two of his typically shy students opened up about the process of building InMoov and the 3-D printers.

“It was like they did a presentation on the spot,” Ferguson remembers. These same two students were invited to bring InMoov to SVSU professor George Corser’s summer programming camp to engage with other bright minds in STEM.

Ferguson continues to develop students’ expertise through their involvement with his Robotics team — the Kingston Robo-Cards. The team participates in games hosted by FIRST Robotics, an organization that promotes contests between high school teams competing to build the strongest and most efficient robots based on engineering design blueprints provided by organizers, and the teams have only six weeks to do it. The competition begins locally, extends to include state contests, then culminates in a national championship each April.

Kingston’s Robo-Cards, established by Ferguson in 2013, placed 14th out of 40 teams at a Kettering Robotics tournament earlier this year, and consistently placed high in subsequent competitions, often with fewer resources than teams from more affluent schools.

While greater funding could help Ferguson’s team afford better equipment for more efficient, smoothly running robots, the team stands behind their productions.

“The students take tremendous pride in the work they do, knowing that they did it,” Ferguson says, but “they understand what other teams are going through” and so are willing to offer help to other teams; it would be likely to see Robo-Cards team members loaning parts or offering assistance when they see a team in need.

Ferguson and his students reflect on the impact that courses like his can have. They look forward to competing in FIRST Robotics. This competition brought roughly 5,000 high schools students from 160 teams to the state tournament hosted by SVSU in April.
Many of his students have expressed that everyone should take a Robotics course; Ferguson would like to see it replace some of the required STEM content, as it touches on all fields of education — physics, math, business and the humanities.

And with a classroom of 10 last school year, it certainly seems other students are catching on to the excitement of Robotics. Ferguson’s class size more than doubled in the 2017-2018 school year, and 65 students showed interest in taking the course (about a third of the entire high school population), supporting Ferguson’s belief that what these students are involved in “is the future” and will only continue to grow in popularity.

STEM initiatives like InMoov and Robotics competitions will continue to grow in size and significance, and at Kingston High School, Matt Ferguson is working hard to contribute to this exciting and limitless field.

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