When teachers at Central High School Magnet Career Academy (CHS) in Louisville, Kentucky started designing a new computer science lab in 2016, they only wanted the best technology for their students. Soon after, Boston Dynamics’ Spot robot started appearing on social media. Spot was mobile, programmable, and easy to operate—just the type of industrial-grade robot that would give CHS students a competitive advantage in college and beyond. 

How CHS overcame budget shortfalls and red tape to become the fourth high school in the United States to acquire Spot is a prime example of the school’s “dream big” mindset.

“Our kids are not going to get jobs making robots from kits,” said computer science teacher Jim Gilbert. “Companies are looking for people who have hands-on experience with industrial-grade robots. There’s never been a better robot for the classroom than Spot. It’s the gold standard.”

“The friendships and relationships I formed…were extremely valuable. Meeting and being surrounded by like-minded individuals who looked like me and were passionate about engineering—they served as powerful role models. The engineers I spoke to influenced me to go into mechanical engineering.”

Bismah Rana, 2023 CHS graduate

Creating a Lot of Buzz

Since arriving in 2021, the Spot robot—renamed Reggie in memory of a beloved school pet—not only has enabled students to learn advanced coding, it has become a source of community pride at pep rallies, football games, and parent-teacher conferences. In fact, the robot is the first thing alumni ask to see when they visit campus.

The effort to acquire the robot has also established a strong partnership between Boston Dynamics, CHS, and the University of Louisville’s Speed School of Engineering. Through funding from a donor, CHS sends a group of students each year to visit Boston Dynamics’ headquarters near Boston, while Speed provides ongoing mentorship and funding, in addition to accepting a large number of CHS graduates into its engineering program each year.

“Who would be more well-suited to work with industrial-grade robotics than someone who’s been working with Spot since high school?” said Ed Colp, sales lead for academia and research at Boston Dynamics. “Not only is this inspirational, but these students are gaining real skills.”

Drawing the District’s Best

Founded in 1870, CHS was the first publicly funded school for Black students in the Louisville area. The school’s most famous graduate, Muhammed Ali, won an Olympic gold medal in boxing while a student. Other notable alumni have gone on to be leaders in the civil rights movement, state politics, and law, among other fields.

Now as a magnet school, CHS draws students from throughout the Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) district and continues to serve a majority BIPOC student body. CHS students apply through a competitive process and study one of 11 career paths, including nursing, business, and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). They earn dual high school and college credits and are eligible for direct admission opportunities through partnerships with area universities, most notably the University of Louisville.

“We definitely have a ‘go college’ philosophy,” said CHS principal Dr. Tamela Compton. “Our students are unafraid to test their ideas, even if it means experiencing some failure along the way. We want them to take risks.”

Students work on robotics components in a STEM classroom

Building a STEM Playground

CHS launched a formal robotics program after a club team reached the 2015 state championships of a VEX Robotics competition. CHS built a “makerspace” so students could gain further exposure to robotics, computer coding, biomedical electronics, and mechanical and electrical engineering.

Verizon provided $10,000 in seed money for equipment, while members of the Speed School assisted with design. The makerspace opened in 2016 and became known as “The Colony,” in reference to the school’s sports teams, the Yellow Jackets. The space proved to be a sandbox for students’ creativity.

“As soon as we can get the resources, these students do giant things,” said Gilbert. “They have made everything from remote-controlled lawn mowers and solar-powered refrigerators to facial recognition devices and prosthetic hands.”

Time for a Real World Robot

Despite the excitement surrounding The Colony, Gilbert and fellow STEM teacher Chris Brown considered it incomplete without Spot. Gilbert frequently spoke to JCPS officials about Spot, but it wasn’t until the district received stimulus funds from the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act in 2020 that the superintendent agreed to fund the project. It took another year and a half to iron out issues with the district’s legal, IT, and software teams.

Spot finally arrived in April 2022—and not a moment too soon.

“As soon as we can get the resources, these students do giant things. They have made everything from remote-controlled lawn mowers and solar-powered refrigerators to facial recognition devices and prosthetic hands.”

Jim Gilbert, Computer Science Teacher

New Name Honors an Old Friend

At the time, staff and students were mourning the death of a pit bull named Reggie who had been a fixture at the school for more than a decade. Reggie had first wandered the school grounds as a stray puppy before being adopted by a social studies teacher. He came to school every day, greeting students and staff alike. Reggie even had his own student ID. In the spring of 2022, Reggie died peacefully of old age. The entire campus was devastated.

Two weeks later, Spot showed up.

It soon became clear that naming the robot after their beloved dog would ensure that another four-legged Reggie would continue to walk the halls. 

“It was like losing a family member,” said Brown. “Everybody knew Reggie, so this was a natural segue into naming the robot after him.”

Central High students drive Spot through the school

Big Robot on Campus

At first, CHS received the base model of Reggie, without a mechanical arm. Gilbert and Brown spent long hours writing the needed curriculum. They put the early focus on general safety, robot “do’s and don’ts,” and familiarity with Reggie’s tablet controller. Students tended to be either excited or cautious around the robot. However, once a student took a turn operating Reggie, any anxiousness evaporated. Eventually, the student body felt similar affection for the robot as they did with Reggie the dog.

“When I first saw Reggie, I was really surprised my school would have a robot that most students in the nation didn’t,” said Gia Patel, a 2023 CHS graduate who is now majoring in mechanical engineering at the University of Louisville. “I loved driving it in the hallways, going up and down stairs, learning the new features, like coding. It definitely gave me a step up in college.”

Swinging into Action

Once CHS acquired Reggie’s mechanical arm in early 2023, the possibilities for robot manipulation multiplied dramatically and the lessons became even more advanced. Students were able to pick up objects with the gripper on Reggie’s arm, or use it to open doors.

Junior and senior computer science students used the coding language Python to program Reggie to complete intricate movements, such as raising a pom pom (Cheerleader Reggie) or putting garbage in a can (Janitor Reggie). Gilbert said achieving this level of precision is what robotics is all about.

“The actual programming is the golden egg we’re shooting for,” said Gilbert. “It’s crucial all of our kids get that down—and they are getting so good at this. It’s amazing.”

CHS students work on a large robot in a  technical lab

Including All Students

Gilbert and Brown said that Reggie’s impact goes well beyond the STEM curriculum. It has been an opportunity to socialize children to be around new technology, including students with special needs. In 2021, CHS had 13 students in its Moderate to Severe Disabilities (MSD) program. To become familiar with the robot, students first watched videos and viewed drawings of Reggie. When they finally met the robot in the school library, the students were elated. Five MSD students now regularly drive Reggie around campus.

“We have kids with autism operating Reggie and loving every minute,” said Gilbert. “Special education kids would normally never get a chance to do something like this. They caught on so quickly. To me, that’s our biggest success so far.”

Visiting Boston

Given that the CHS robotics curriculum is still evolving, the school’s relationship with Boston Dynamics is ongoing.  Funded by private donations, CHS was able to take small groups of students to tour Boston Dynamics’ headquarters in Waltham, MA, in 2022 and 2023. For some students, it was the first time they had left Kentucky.

Beyond the adventure of visiting a new city, the trip offered a glimpse of a career in robotics. Students met engineers for Spot and other robots, and were inspired to see a wide range of ethnic, racial, and religious diversity among the engineering team. They also saw demonstrations of the bipedal robot Atlas performing backflips and the autonomous warehouse robot Stretch handling boxes. In fact, all 14 students from the 2022 trip received college scholarships to study engineering, with 10 enrolling at the University of Louisville. 

“The friendships and relationships I formed during the trip were extremely valuable,” said Bismah Rana, a 2023 CHS graduate who is studying mechanical engineering at the University of Louisville. “Meeting and being surrounded by like-minded individuals who looked like me and were passionate about engineering—they served as powerful role models. The engineers I spoke to influenced me to go into mechanical engineering.”

Curriculum for All

Given that only a handful of high schools currently have a Spot robot, there is not a large bank of curricula on which to draw. Gilbert and Brown continue to work overtime developing lesson plans that any high school in the world will be able to use for free. The intent is to ease the way for schools looking to bring Spot to their campus.

“You have to put in this much sweat equity to make things happen, but the ultimate benefit is the kids,” said Brown. “To see so many of our graduates at the University of Louisville and other schools, that’s what it’s all about.”

Explore their Spot Curriculum and start bring real-world robotics to your classroom.