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Robotics research gives teachers new STEM tools for the classroom

  |   Kristen B. Morales   |   Permalink   |   Spotlight

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As fifth-grade teachers, Jennifer Hannah and Laura Payne are used to tackling several different topics in the span of a day.

But robotics? Not quite yet.

"We've made little cars out of materials in the classroom, but nothing like this," said Payne, a teacher at Statham Elementary School. Payne was among more than a dozen fifth-grade teachers from Barrow County Schools taking part in a workshop on building and programming robots, hosted by Research for the Advancement of Innovative Learning in the College of Education.

The morning session took place a few days before Christmas at Sims Academy of Innovation and Technology in Winder. Theodore Kopcha, a professor in the College of Education's Department of Career and Information Studies, led the teachers through building and programming the robots, followed by a discussion of how to turn the exercise into a series of lessons.

"I was a little nervous at first, but they walked us right through," said Hannah as she made a final check of her newly built robot. "I know the kids will pick this up even faster."

Robot Workshop with two teachers

After assembling the soda can-sized wheeled machines, the teachers then tackled the main task of the day. Using a grid taped to a table, their assignment was to write a computer program directing the robots to two or three different "collection points," then bring it back to its starting point. The grid was peppered with images of spewing lava and rock formations, simulating obstacles in a real-life environment.

The teachers programmed the robots using software to calculate the turning and forward motions of the robots. The calculations required math skills—time, speed and fractions helped calculate its distance—to reduce the amount of trial and error.

Teams cheered as some eventually reached their targeted collection points. Others learned the value of marking a starting point or programming subtle corrections to the robots' movements as they went through the grid. Jennifer McGregor, a graduate student in the career and information studies department who helped with the workshop, noted the different ways teams solved problems and completed their goals.

These observations came in handy after the exercise, when the group discussed ways to bring group successes and failures into a larger classroom discussion. McGregor urged the teachers to have their students look at each other's routes and ask, "What do you see that's similar?" "Why were your turns different?" "Why did you choose to back out?"

"To really get them thinking so you have those moments where they're like, 'Ooh...,'" she said. "If someone is having a hard time, come together and talk about what we can do to help them."

It's important to get kids in the mindset of an engineer, she added. This could mean pairing the robot exercise with lessons on geographical forms or volcanoes, so students have the chance to visualize the imaginary terrain their robot must cross to fulfill specific missions. "I should be teaching volcanoes right about the time I teach this, so it will be really integrated," said Todd Smith, who teaches at Bramlett Elementary School.

The mathematics comes in during the programming of the robots, added Kopcha.

"The goal is to start integrating some rich mathematics and some coordinate systems with some of the science, which is about volcanoes," he said. "The math is about becoming more precise with making your robot go out and run the circuit. So ahead of time, you predict where you want it to go, how far and how long, and you use that to build the program, test the program and refine the program."

Robot Workshop with two teachers

This engineering process is the overall framework for the lessons.

The teachers plan for their students to start building and programming the robots in their classrooms in February. Later this spring, the group will get back together and discuss sensors and more advanced programming.

The overall experience is a great way to blend lessons with hands-on activities, said Jan Masingill, assistant superintendent for Barrow County Schools who attended the morning workshop.

"I think it is a fabulous opportunity for our students and our teachers to get some hands-on experiences and really learn something that will help them with their math, their sciences, and their engineering and technology," she said. "It all comes together into a real-world experience."

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