Geek is the New Chic: The Rise of School Robotics

by Jennifer Jordan

When people over the age of 30 hear the word “robotics,” most are likely to conjure images of R2D2, Rosie the Robot from The Jetsons, or the original Transformers cartoon. Robots were fascinating to science fiction geeks, but for the majority of people, they still existed in a galaxy far, far away. How times have changed. Today, children are not just watching robots on the screen, they are designing them, building them and testing them in classes and in competitions–as young as age nine.

Interest in robotics has surged as technology now drives our world. Math and science skills are becoming more important for careers after college, and thus, a growing number of schools emphasize science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) concepts. Public and private schools across the country offer robotics curricula as well as after-school programs. Our local Texarkana, Texas schools are no exception. Most campuses in TISD offer robotics classes and several after-school programs at the elementary and secondary levels. Texas Middle School averages 100 students who participate in robotics clubs. Red Lick Middle School and St. James Day School also provide after-school robotics programs.

The benefits of robotics participation are numerous. Robotics allows students to “develop creativity and engage in a real-world, applicable challenge,” says Michelle O’Gorman, 5th and 6th grade Robotics teacher at Red Lick Middle School. “Students are also strengthening their writing skills because they have to write blueprints for their design and write their project description for the competition.”

Ronda Jameson, Director of STEM Education for TISD, believes that robotics is “creating an environment where students love math and science. It is the strongest piece I have seen for preparing for our increasingly technological world.”

Mark Patrick, TISD Instructional Technology Specialist for Secondary Campuses, chose these comments.

“Students can get hands on with robotics and apply concepts that they have learned in classes,” Patrick said. “They understand why math matters.”

Robotics clubs are an ideal way to get involved, and all schools welcome any of their students to try out. Students try out in the spring or at the beginning of the fall semester, and those who are selected prepare several weeks for a regional competition. Schools typically form several teams of three to four students each. The teams follow the guidelines set by the organization sponsoring the competition; these guidelines require students to build and program a robot to perform a certain function in a specified amount of time.

For the first Lego League (FFL) “2012 Senior Solutions” challenge this December, Red Lick and TISD teams each partnered with a senior citizen to determine a problem faced by senior citizens, designed an innovative solution to that problem, and shared the solution with others. At the FFL competition, teams presented their project and participated in a robot game where the robot demonstrates the solution.

The Texas Computer Educators Association (TCEA)’s 2012-2013 Mindstorms Robotics Challenge is equally impressive. Centered around a chemistry theme, this “Molecule Mania” challenge required students to develop a robot that could create molecules out of hydrogen and oxygen atoms. If this goal alone does not blow you away, remember that many of the students completing this challenge are ages 10-12! TISD’s Morriss Elementary School and St. James Day School teams took first, second and third place, respectively, in the TCEA competition.

It is important to note that the student teams do all of this work on their own. Their teachers support and mentor them, but the students themselves build and program the robots. To do this, they must work effectively as a team and rely on each other. According to Bob Primm, fifth/sixth grade math and science teacher and one of the coaches of the St. James Day School robotics program, among the most valuable benefits that students reap through robotics is the skill of “learning how to compromise.”

Robotics offers these and many other opportunities for students. The Texas High T-Bots recently asked for an additional academic course called Robotics Automation. The students researched the course elements and developed a proposal for the course, which was recently approved by TISD. Mark Patrick credits these students’ robotics work for their ability and interest in advancing their education. “This is an example of what these type of programs can do–they are engineering opportunities for further education.”

TISD recently received a $40,000 grant from the Education Blueprints Association, which will strengthen robotics programs throughout the district.

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Not only does robotics challenge students’ minds and build teamwork and problem-solving skills, it prepares students for the future. Simply put by St. James 6th grader Ethan Yost, “robotics is about learning how to get things done. This is something you need to know in life.”

Why Robotics?

“It teaches us a lot of responsibility.” -John Debenport, 8th grade, Red Lick Middle School

“Building and programming the robot is my favorite part. Problem-solving is a valuable life skill.” -Davis Miller, 6th grade, St. James Day School

“At the competition, we can watch the other teams and be in awe of how they do something. Then we can network with them.” -Tobias Nixon, 8th grade, Red Lick Middle School

“You have to get along well with your team. One small glitch, and things may not go well.” -Maddie Anderson, 5th grade, St. James Day School

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