Robotics Is In Full Swing at Schools and Clubs As Students Design and Build Many Devices
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By Jean Stratton
A tennis ball that records velocity and acceleration; a piano staircase with sensors installed to create music as one walks (or dances!) up and down the stairs; mini Ferris wheels and race cars; an underwater robot; a 3D vision system for robot soccer; a quadcopter and hexacopter; a “chatbot” mimicking human intelligence … and more.
These are not figments of a would-be scientist’s imagination or the whimsical fantasies of a hopeful inventor. They are actual devices designed, built, and programmed by students in robotics classes and clubs in the Princeton area.
Enthusiasm for robotics is increasing by leaps and bounds as both boys and girls enjoy the opportunity to design, build, and program a variety of intriguing items. And they are certainly up to the challenge!
Robotics involves the design, construction, operation, and use of robots as well as computer systems for their control, sensory feedback, and information processing. It includes the creation of machines that can replicate human actions. All robots contain some level of computer programming code. A program is how the robot decides when and how to do something.
“Robotics is a multi-disciplinary field,” explains Graciela Elia, mathematics and computer science teacher at Princeton High School. “The benefits of learning these skills include math applications — from geometry to algebra to multivariable calculus; physics — from mechanical to electronics; designing — from 2D to 3D; computer science — from computational thinking to embedded programming; and mostly, the ability to trouble-shoot.”
Adds Alicia Testa, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) coordinator and Upper School technology teacher, tech integrator, and robotics coach at Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart: “Robotics is a great way for students to take risks with their learning because it’s a safe environment to see something not work (experience failure) and to learn from that experience. It forces students to refine their logic and look for a new and different way to solve a problem. Having to try again is foundational to research and exploration.”
Peter Egan, director of admissions at Princeton International School of Mathematics and Science (PRISMS) agrees with this view. “Robotics classes develop authentic problem-solving skills and utilize the application of many theoretical concepts.”
In the world of technology, youth is by no means a disadvantage. In fact, it seems “the younger, the better!” Students at very early ages are becoming skilled proponents of technology in many areas.
Stuart has classes in robotics for the youngest students. “This year, our Lower School girls (Jr. K-4) will be using WeDo in their STEM classes,” reports Alicia
Testa. “Our youngest girls have the opportunity to participate in robotics extra curricular activities, including Solar Jam, a solar car race in Princeton, and WeDo robotics classes.”
Stuart’s Middle School students also participate in robotics. “We have incorporated robotics into the curricula of our science classes and are working on more integration,” points out Testa. “Our students use WeDo Robotics to build a variety of items from animals to Ferris wheels, and the girls program motors and sensors for interactivity. Middle School student clubs include a FIRST Lego League (FLL) Robotics Team.”
FIRST Tech Challenge
A formal Robotics course was started four years ago in Stuart’s Upper School. The course utilizes the FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) robotics curriculum. It is a project-based learning course during which students build a robot designed for the current year FTC competition challenge, explains Testa.
“Stuart’s Sparks Robotics Team has competed in FTC since 2011,” she adds. “In the Upper School, we also offer a course called Design of Emergent Technologies, where students work with programming microcontollers to connect sensors as they design and build their own creations. A few examples of student projects include a tennis ball that records velocity and acceleration, a mailbox sensor to alert you when you have USPS mail, and a ‘piano’ staircase.”
“An ‘I can do it’ mentality is critical to a growth mindset and particularly important for women and girls who still trail behind their male peers in STEM,” continues Testa. “Robotics projects are not just tech; they’re also creative. Students utilize design thinking together with the engineering process. They begin to integrate mechanical thinking, programming, and mathematics with each creation. Our girls enjoy the collaboration and creation that robotics encourages. In addition, they take pride in their work, and can say, ‘I built that.’”
The Princeton Public Schools introduced robotics at the elementary school level in 2013. “We saw the need to expose children to computer programming through an integrated approach, and robots helped students focus on specific tasks for designing simple programs,” explains Edward Cohen, EdD, supervisor of Science PreK-12, Princeton Public Schools.
Adds Mark Eastburn, Princeton Public Schools science teacher, “Students are building skills and enthusiasm in computer programming and computational thinking, allowing them to figure out strategies for breaking down large problems into more manageable units. The students like the opportunity to interact with the robots, to make them responsive to words or actions that the students initiated.”
John Witherspoon Middle School began its robotics program in 2011 as a class called STEM Robotics for sixth, seventh, and eighth graders. “I think of it more as an engineering class that uses robotics as a tool for learning,” says Randolph Casey, STEM Robotics teacher at John Witherspoon Middle School.
“Robotics classes teach students to be engineers and how to learn to program. Using the engineering design process, students learn to fail and improve their designs to complete a variety of tasks. Along the way, they begin learning the logic behind programming and coding,” says Casey.
Classes focus on different projects for each grade, he adds. “My sixth grade students have three themes: egg drop, bridges, and robotics. The seventh grade students use robotics all semester to complete space simulation missions and build race cars. My eighth graders use robotics to complete challenges on land and in water. They also work with quadcopters and hexacopters.”
Princeton High School does not have a specific robotics class, but mathematics and computer science teacher Graciela Elia introduced a Computers and Robotics Club, which continues to engage increasing numbers of students.
“The club runs consistently from the beginning to the end of the school year, meeting after school more than twice a week,” she explains. “In the last five years, the number of students and commitment on their part has grown tremendously.
“Three years ago, the Robotics Teams began participating in the Firefighter Robot Contest at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. Last year, PHS had four robots competing in this international event.
“Also last year, I included one module on physical computing in my Java programming classes so students can see their programs control physical structures. I was able to bring to the classroom a simple robot for students to program.
“They spent many hours designing and building their robots. The programming aspect is more challenging and demanding. As an educator, I was impressed by the students’ performance and their endurance to work out the difficulties of the complex yet rewarding world of robotics.”
Princeton International School of Mathematics and Science has offered robotics classes for the past four years. Students are enthusiastically committed to the classes and especially enjoy the opportunity to build unique and complex designs, says Peter Egan.
Robotics classes are available for all four grades (nine through 12), and include Applied Engineering 1, Applied Engineering 2, Advanced Robotics, and Research in Robotics.
“Applied Engineering 1 introduces students to the technical application of engineering disciplines through the use of the engineering design process and a highly technical laboratory environment,” explains Egan. “This course serves as the cornerstone of the PRISMS engineering program, as it engages students in the physical application of complex theoretical topics including basic electronics, engineering design, prototyping, robotics, and engineering research.
“In addition, Applied Engineering 1 is an integral part of the PRISMS BASE program, which bridges a common topic of study between the arts, science, and engineering.”
Applied Engineering 2 continues engineering-based exploration, and “throughout the year, students will work in both classroom and laboratory settings to study circuit design, microcontroller programming, data acquisition, prototyping, and robotics.”
The Advanced Robotics course offers a series of challenging situations for students during their junior and senior years, continues Egan. “This is a problem-based course that explores methods in which high level spatial awareness and control algorithms are applied to complex robotic systems.”
Ultimately, the students will apply a series of concepts “through the implementation of the engineering design process to the design and construction of multiple robotic systems.”
Although boys are often thought to be more engaged in science studies than girls, the STEM program is gaining in popularity for girls, as is evidenced by the participation of students at Stuart and also by the number of girls involved in STEMgirlz/Girls Who Code. This is a volunteer organization providing workshops for girls in the Bucks County area and beyond.
Facilitator and organizer Arta Szathmary, a retired professor of computer science, merged STEMgirlz with Girls Who Code last year, with a mission to increase the interest of girls in science and technology.
“Robotics is a combination of engineering, physics, and programming,” she explains. “The girls program the devices in various coding languages. They love the immediate feedback, and the fact that they can use their phones or tablets is a great joy for them. Currently, we are offering sessions for girls in middle and high school. Also, in October, we will add a class for the third through fifth grade level.”
Sessions are guided and taught by Szathmary and other teachers.
“This semester, we have two different groups that are building Lego EV3 robots in varying shapes. In October, the girls will participate in a statewide coding contest. We also have one group of girls using the PYTHON Programing language, and another group building Raspberry Pi computers, who will also be programming and doing some IOT/Maker projects, including a phone booth.
“Workshops are available after school and on Saturday at Bucks County County Community College (BCCC) campuses in Perkasie, Bristol, and Newtown, Pa., as well as at Centertec in the Oxford Valley Mall.
“In addition,” notes Szathmary, “For the past two years, I have included a session for home schooled girls at the Perkasie campus.
A special event, STEMgirlz Discovery Day, which is a full day at BCCC, will be held on Saturday, October 20. Registration is free, and open until October 10. Volunteer STEM faculty for BCCC will assist with the workshops.
The opportunities in robotics, as in so many areas of technology, seem un-ending, and will no doubt lead to amazing discoveries barely on the horizon today. Imagination, creativity, and exploration are all part of this extraordinary field — all there at the doorstep of today’s students.
“Robotics is not just about making and programming robots,” states Graciela Elia. “Robotics is a field for creativity and imagination.”