Yellowknife high school seeks to expand robotics program

Categories: Canada

A Yellowknife high school’s fast-growing robotics program is seeking more funding to allow students to compete nationally or beyond.

Nikita Morozov, a teacher at Sir John Franklin High School, introduced the program after arriving at the school two years ago.

Moving from Russia to Canada as a 10-year-old, Morozov said he immersed himself in computers after the initial language barrier made it hard to make friends. After learning a little about robotics during his training to become a teacher, he arrived in Yellowknife to find a lot of students passionate about engineering and computers, but no robotics program.

“I decided to learn as I went,” he said of his decision to develop a course.

That has resulted in a program where many students are, in Morozov’s words, “going above and beyond” – mastering the engineering principles behind robotics while learning programming languages like C++ and Python.



In Grade 9, students use snap-together, Lego-like robot kits that simplify the building process while students focus on programming. As they grow older, students are confronted with more of the complexities of physically constructing a robot.

“You get to drive robots and make them. It’s very fun,” said Grade 11 student Lochlan Dunn shortly before class ended for the summer. Dunn had finished a C++ course and was working on Python at the time.

“I’m looking to go into an electrician’s trade, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, software engineering,” he said.

“We’re going into a digital age, right? Actually knowing how the code in your computer works means you can fix issues. It’s a really nice thing to understand.



“What sucks is we don’t really have a lot of funding.”

Money is an issue in part because Yellowknife’s comparatively isolated nature makes building a robotics program more complicated than in the south, Morozov said.

“When I was in high school, robotics was unaffordable for high schools. Now, it’s still expensive but it’s possible,” he said. “But we have to buy fully assembled kits. Down south, if you’re missing something, you can run to the store, grab it and come back. Here, we have to wait two weeks to ship it up here.”

“We’ve run into a few issues,” said Dunn, “where we didn’t have enough actual kits – computing brains, batteries, controllers, parts for just-about everything.”

Morozov said the cost of six robots, which covers 12 students, is $12,000. So far, Northwestel has provided a grant of $5,000 and De Beers $1,000. He said anyone else looking to donate should contact him by email.

If more funding can be found, the goal is to “take the kids out of the classroom and into competitions,” he said, referring to events like Skills Canada tournaments.

“I can’t take a robot out of my classroom, because that robot currently serves six kids,” said Morozov. “In BC, they go to tournaments all over the province and they go to Worlds.”

At a certain stage, he added, competition-level kits are standardized, so richer schools don’t gain any further advantage through money. Progress rests on your skill level as a student.



“You can’t just pump money to win. So if we can get the competition kits for our students, you don’t have to compete against millions of dollars down south. Once you’re in the door, it’s a level playing field,” he said.

Morozov is convinced many of his students will “go way beyond me” in robotics and the broader field of computer technology.

“Most of these students are going to be engineers. I think mining is going to come back in a huge way,” he said, emphasizing the role of robotics in the field of mineral exploration.

“Now, you can send out 100 drones to scout an area, instantly. And those are the kids who are going to be doing it.”

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