For Young Robotics Students, STEM Becomes Hands On

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Eagle Academy Students with their certificates of completion of the Sea Perch Robotics program. Credit: Lydia Smith

When a member of Payne Elementary School’s Robotics Club couldn’t attend the World Championship in Louisville, Kentucky, 5th grader Makaya Cox was asked to take her place. Cox couldn’t compete—she hadn’t prepared with the club, then in its first year. But when she arrived in Kentucky, watching the hordes of robots crossing bridges and navigating autonomously, she thought: “I’m going to do that one day.”

Cox wrote an essay to apply for the 2017-2018 team, which had won the Elementary School Excellence Award the year before, and was accepted. This year, her team was just a point away from winning the citywide competition and qualifying for Worlds. Her eyes beam as she motions towards her robot. It’s the “girls’ robot,” says Justin Proctor, also on the team—there was a girls team, and a boys team, and this is the girls’ robot. (You can tell, because the boys’ robot has bigger claws. This one has a bracelet that reads: “girlpowered.”)

Before Proctor joined robotics, he was an avid lego builder, and even built an automaton in last years’ DC science fair. This year, he aspires to make it to Kentucky. But Proctor likes robotics because it isn’t only about external outcomes. “It’s not always about winning,” he tells me. “It’s about having fun.”

The increasingly common integration of robotics into the elementary school curriculum means students’ introduction to fields they might not have been exposed to until later on. For many educators, it’s a necessary step in an ever changing world. 

Underwater Robots
On a Monday in early June—the same Monday as pajama day—Eagle Academy in Congress Heights brings a few third graders to their pool. Thick wafts of chlorine stew in the humid room, especially conspicuous against the charter school’s crisper hallways. It’s the Sea Perch Underwater Robotics Demonstration, where students will navigate their own duct-taped, colorful, Remotely Operated Vehicles.

At first, the robots sink a little, maneuver out of their lanes, bob up and down. But students are persistent, dedicated to seeing their ROVs succeed.

Courtney Brown, the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics through the Arts specialist at the school for Kindergarten through third graders, leads the program with pre-K STEAM specialist Karen Brooks Bauer, in partnership with the Navy, and with the help of Let’s Go, an organization with the mission of breaking the cycle of poverty “through STEM education and workforce development.”

To Brown, the Sea Perch Program is a “dynamic opportunity” for exposure to robotics, programs which “allow children the opportunity for guided discovery and open ended inquiry.” In robotics, she says, there’s no wrong answer.

“We want as many students to get as much exposure on this side of the river as their peers all across the DC metro area,” Brown explains.

While the implementation of robotics programs are difficult, especially on the elementary level, Brown feels the “benefits are worth it.” “Structurally we’re set up for a program like that because we have a supportive administration,” she says, and the pool. Her robotics students won 2nd place in the Earth/Space division of the 2018 Elementary DC STEM Fair, with a project on the solar system.

The program was not a one-off educational activity. Joe Smith, Eagle Academy’s CEO says that the program is important in “stimulating some of our kids to think about technology and engineering as a possible career.” To Jacqueline Baldini, who’s in charge of the DC region’s Let’s Go, science and technology education encourages students to pursue those fields—something her organization doesn’t merely support, but works towards. Let’s Go believes this offers hard and soft skills—hard, like coding, “for the 21st century,” and soft, like teamwork and critical thinking. “Our goal is to keep [students] in the STEM education pipeline so they can actually move into a STEM job in the future,” Baldini explains. They will continue to follow students in their programs throughout their educational career.

Kimball Elementary School is named an Emerging STEM School in 2017. Credit: Kimball Elementary School

Starting Early
At Kimball Elementary School in Ward 7, robotics is integrated into the curriculum for children as young as three years old. Kimball uses Bee-Bops for pre-schoolers, robots that move in six inch shuffles and 90 degree turns. Fourth graders participate in the VEX program, like at Payne, building and programming robots they can steer with remote controllers. Neither is a STEM DC Elementary School.

Kimball received the New Leaders Roberts Innovation Award of $25,000 in 2016 for its STEAM program, and has had a robotics program for three years now. This year, a team of 5th graders won first place in the Math/Physics division of the Elementary DC STEM Fair. Two of the students were on the school’s robotics team.

Principal Johann Lee sees robotics as integral to their expanding STEAM program. “Robotics itself has really pushed our students to think critically and creatively and innovatively,” he explains. “What’s the coolest thing about it is it provides them the opportunity to work without fear of failure.” Lee says coding and technological STEAM curriculum are central to Kimball’s mission—building a bridge between their community and the world. “Today’s world is a very technologically integrated place,” he asserts, and it’s their job to prepare students for this world, “despite where they come from.”

The school obtained resources and materials through the Roberts Innovation Award. Kimball is midway through their STEAM program’s three year plan, working to continue integrating the subject into the school’s general curriculum.

“I believe that STEM education will ultimately be education in about ten to twenty years,” Lee concludes.

Expanding Horizons
Sscience teacher Monich Brown, who leads Payne’s team with Shanita Henson, says that most elementary students envision being being doctors, or teachers, or football players. Robotics “increases their interests in other fields.” For instance, students were interested in the construction at Payne last year so she took them to an engineering festival in DC. Cox’s mother, Lajuana Cox, tells me that her daughter’s time on the robotics club improved her math skills, and with the research involved, her reading, as well.

At Payne, Brown says, teachers prioritize the “maker thought process,” where students are taught to find solutions to the problem they identify. Teachers let students lead in competition—“we can’t even touch the robot,” she explains. When their controller wasn’t working, Cox says, the teachers helped out, but she liked that teachers were otherwise hands off. “They’re learning from each other,” Brown concludes.

At the end of our conversation, Cox and Proctor show me how the robot works. Proctor slides in the battery and points to a blue panel: the brain. Cox admits that the robots were fancier in Kentucky—some had faces, some were designed like characters in movies. But even though her robot is small, it can do almost everything the big ones can. She takes over, while Proctor describes the wires, and demonstrates how the robot’s claws pick up the rings.

“The world is changing,” Monich Brown concludes. In this “maker society,” she proclaims, “STEM and robotics [would] benefit all other aspects of student learning.”

Resources
LET’S GO, the organization that partnered with Eagle: http://www.letsgoboysandgirls.com/
STEM at DCPS: https://sites.google.com/a/dc.gov/stem-dcps/
DC STEM Fair 2018: https://www.dcstemnetwork.org/dc-stem-fair/