Robots help elementary students develop a passion for robotics and stem education

Think robots are characters relegated to sci-fi movies of yesteryear, or machines only scientists and computer engineers can program or maneuver? Think again! In some ways, robotics is to technology what the jukebox may have been for the music industry, and “no” they’re not only for big kids or geeks. Robots and their applications have continued to evolve quickly, and are fast becoming part of our everyday lives.

Given this surge in interest, FLATE partnered with HCC, the School District of Hillsborough County and LEGO Education to host the Hillsborough Robotics Challenge for elementary students. This elementary level competition included eight teams of eight students chosen from eight local Title 1 schools, was the finale of a pilot program for the school district, and was held at the HCC Brandon,  campus in May.

Central to the competition was its focus on getting kids excited about mathematics and science. Jack Fahle, Hillsborough County Public Schools district resource teacher for mathematics said “We want students to see mathematics and science are not mere concepts taught in text books, but are useful tools for them to use in our everyday lives.” Challenges comprised of three parts that were evaluated by three separate judging teams. The first was the NXT challenge where every team competed within a limited timeframe on specific challenges that they prepared for in advance. The second component was the WeDo/spontaneous challenge which required participants to find a solution to a “new” challenge in 60 minutes, and represented individual team approaches to finding a workable solution. Working against the clock in teams of two, participants designed and built a security alarm system for a museum using LEGOs and its programming software whereby the guard (robot) would be alerted if there was a breach in security. Finally, the interview component involved answering judges’ questions on teams’ approach to solving the challenges.

The challenges served as a great experience in learning concepts like coordinates, motor speed and rotation. Kimberly, a fifth grader from McDonald Elementary School said “before we did not know how mathematics and science are incorporated in our daily life. We learned how these concepts fit together when applied to robotics.” Sarah Gill and Mary Ann Jenks, teachers at Roland Park Elementary School in Tampa, pointed to the lessons plans as “great resources developing advanced critical thinking skills.”

The age of the participants was another striking aspect of the competition. Shawn Killebrew, teacher at McDonald Elementary School in Thonotosassa, FL and Debra Smith, market communications coordinator for LEGO Education agrees reaching out to students at the elementary level helps break down mental blocks about themselves, their abilities, and enables students to reach beyond their boundaries. “Robotics is also a great tie-in for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), so the younger you are, the better you get at solving challenges and problems” Smith said.

The competition undoubtedly ignited interest in STEM education. Trey, a fifth grader from Frost Elementary School in Tampa agreed the competition was “a great place to start for all who want to become engineers in future.” Susan Boyd and Kylie Floyd, teachers at Frost Elementary School also complimented the program in enabling students to become involved in technology, engineering, and solving problems while being engineers in the classroom. The program is all set to grow with eight more schools poised to join the Hillsborough County elementary robotics program in the next year. Given its broad impact, Debra Smith hopes everyone will have access to the robotics product line in future, and that it will become a staple in education. “From thereon it’s just a matter of dreaming big” Smith said.

For information on Lego Education visit www.legoeducation.us. For information on local robotics programs in Hillsborough County contact Dr. Marilyn Barger at barger@fl-ate.org.