Simon Reyes, left, and Gerrie Shepard, the grandmother of one of the students and a retired computer programmer who helps the students learn to code. (Provided photo)
Education, Feature, Local News

HF Robotics celebrates a decade of building

Simon Reyes, left, and Gerrie Shepard, the grandmother of one of the students and a retired computer programmer who helps the students learn to code. (Provided photo)
Simon Reyes, left, and Gerrie Shepard, the grandmother of one of the students and a retired computer programmer who helps the students learn to code. (Provided photo)

Ten years ago, something extraordinary began in the garage of Flossmoor Mayor Michelle Nelson. Along with her husband Cameron and neighbor Mark Matthews, Nelson founded a small Lego league team that taught kids how to make robots move.

The group has transformed into the HF Robotics Team, a STEM learning resource for youth ages 9 to 18.

The team began as an effort to provide a structured educational activity for kids in the community. They also wanted to start teaching them engineering skills at a young age.

“We were looking for an activity that would keep us all accountable,” Nelson said. “The Lego League has a due date with rubrics. It is a structured international organization. We tapped into a well-run machine.”

What started in her garage soon moved to the basement of the Flossmoor Library for a season. The robotics club now has a more permanent home at the Homewood Science Center. They usually work in the center’s garage, but they are spending this winter in the basement due to sprinkler work on the building.

The increasing size of HF Robotics mirrored the team’s evolving capabilities. They went from Lego constructions to more sophisticated devices built from machined metals, plastics and 3D-printed parts. The teams participate in organized play consisting of timed challenges.

As the group marks its tenth anniversary, it has grown bigger than ever, with three Lego teams and a For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) league team that allows up to 15 members. This growth is supported by a network of volunteers, mostly parents, who lead practices and mentor the teams.

Using programming languages like JAVA and design tools like AutoCAD, the team’s older division comprises 13- to 18-year-olds participating in the FIRST Tech Challenge. This challenge includes building and programming competition robots that operate on a 10 x 10 mat. The capabilities of these devices are complex and surprising.

This program is a step above the division for 9 to 14-year-olds. The younger groups focus on building and programming Lego robots to complete tasks on a 4 x 8 board as part of an annual challenge set by FIRST LEGO League.

“This is a well-rounded experience for the kids, and it is so beneficial,” said Nelson.

The HF Robotics team will compete in a state qualifying meet on Feb. 17 at Parker Junior High. This event is free and open to all. It will showcase the talent and hard work of the HF Robotics “Tech Ninja Team” and other teams from around the area.

Future engineers and scientists interested in joining the Homewood-Flossmoor team can find more information on the Homewood Science Center’s website.

Correction: Michelle Nelson’s title initially was incorrect. She is the mayor of Flossmoor. The Chronicle apologizes for the error.

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