Torrey Pines high schoolers help elementary kids learn robotics


On a recent Thursday, nine-year-old Noah used a remote control to maneuver a robot to pick up a stack of legos in the library of Del Mar Heights Elementary School.

He turned to Brian, a 17-year-old Torrey Pines High School senior, for help. The teen offered the fourth grader some suggestions.

Those didn't work.

"It's kind of annoying sometimes. Sometimes they tell you to do something that's completely wrong and then it fails," Noah said, smirking at Brian, who nodded in agreement while laughing.

Eventually, the pair figured out a solution together.

On this Thursday in December, students in the Del Mar Heights and Torrey Pines robotics teams worked together to control robots, as well as learn engineering, science and math techniques.

The two groups have met several times a week together for 10 weeks each year since forming a partnership in summer 2017.

Kate Zimmer, the co-coach of the elementary school's club, said fourth through sixth-grade students who had shown interest in robotics and engineering were hand-picked to join the club. The Torrey Pines team then approached Zimmer and asked if they could help the kids out.

Noah, Sebastian and Irene demonstrate their track for their robot.
(Brittany Woolsey)

Together, during the teen group's offseason, the two teams prepare for their competitions — the First Lego League, which uses Lego toys, for the elementary school students and the First Robotics Competition for the teens.

Zimmer, who coaches alongside Jared Brzenski, said she believes such a partnership instills confidence in her team members, especially since they're learning from "cool, older kids."

"When that high school kid sits down with them at the computer and goes one-on-one with them, all of a sudden, that little 9-year old kid feels really smart and really important," she said. "They think what he or she does matters. It makes that kid rise to the occasion. They aren't able to disappear into the background."

Through their involvement in the club, Zimmer's kids also learn social skills, public speaking, work ethics and an ability to continue to work for long periods of time, she noted.

In their most recent competition in November in La Jolla, themed "Into Orbit," the team won second place for its presentation and qualified for the regional competition in December. However, they could not make the event due to scheduling conflicts, Zimmer said.

Now, the kids are preparing for a scrimmage at Legoland in Carlsbad in February.

Sebastian, a 10-year-old fourth grader, said he likes that if he or his nine team members get stuck, they don't have to only rely on their coaches. Instead, there's a helpful teen who's more than willing to guide them to the solution.

As she helped the elementary school children with their robot, Emmie, a 17-year-old Torrey Pines senior, said one of the biggest reasons she wanted to help the kids was because she wishes there was a program like this when she was their age.

The teen, who's been involved in the club since her sophomore year, hopes to help change the way children often think about math and science.

"These kids grow up thinking that math, physics and science are such nerdy topics," she said. "It's cool showing them that that's not the case; you can use them for something else."