MURPHYSBORO -- With the touch of a joystick, Charles Cunningham’s robot went to work, scooping up foam balls and shooting them across the room into a net.

On the wall behind the gaming arena, awards pennants hung next to a hand-written sign: “MHS Robotics Devil Bots: Gearing up for the future.”

In the three years since Murphysboro High School’s robotics program launched, student interest has ballooned. Where once a handful of students filled out one section of the class, now 45 eager learners attend four elective robotics sections each day, racking up competition wins along the way.

“The dedication of these students is why I think the program’s so successful,” said John Nichols, the program’s instructor. “They take it and make it their own.”

For students, building and programming bots often turns into a passion project, drawing them to school after hours and on weekends to tweak their work and fix imperfections. For teachers and administrators, robotics not only engages students, but it fits the modern-day call for interdisciplinary, hands-on, student-driven instruction.

The discipline requires teamwork skills, programming know-how, project management and observation skills. Students must jot their design notes in journals, keeping track of design changes, challenges and improvements.

“We don’t just have this class to have fun and build robots,” Nichols said. “We need to make sure we have the skills in there.”

MHS’s program began in 2013. Nichols took over this past year after teaching robotics for a couple years at the UniTec Career Center in southeast Missouri. Since he’s been at Murphysboro, he’s led students to state tournament wins – and a spot, this past year, at the VEX World Championship.

Nichols said the $13,000-$15,000 program is well worth the cost. It can have a lasting impact on students. Some students have gone on to top-notch engineering programs and hush-hush jobs in the military.

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Each year, in addition to their coursework, students sign up to compete in as many as nine competitions. MHS students have proven their muster. They swept their most recent tournament, and this past year, the team won the Design Award at a state championship.

Nichols’ only hope for years to come?

“I wish I could get more girls in here,” he said. “That’s the one thing I really want to see.”

This year, Calie Loyd, a 16-year-old junior, is the only girl in the program. When a guidance counselor recommended the class to her, Loyd said she initially scoffed.

“I was like, ‘No, I’m not smart enough for robotics,’” she remembered telling him.

Now that she’s in, though, she can’t get enough. After her bot had to sit out the most recent tournament due to technical issues, she resolved to make things right. On a Saturday earlier this month, she came to school, hunkered down and set to work on a new design. She arrived at 10 a.m. and left 12 hours later.

Nichols said her hard work pays off. She’s one of the top students in class.

“I’ve never really been interested in school things,” Loyd said. “But I actually like coming to school because I like coming to this class.”

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