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Robots are our future

Speed read
  • Computer scientists step in to help teachers meet new education standards
  • Programming robots engages even hard-to-reach students
  • Science teachers build skills alongside students

“Get one with good claws!” shouted Steven Case across the room to a fellow student at Mitchell Junior High School.

He’s not talking about a wombat or Wolverine—Steven wants to make sure his partner chooses a robot with the right grippers for tasks they’re programming it to do in their seventh-grade science class.

<strong>Learning from the Mindstorm master.</strong> Science teacher Amy Glassco watches as IU staffer Tony Brazzell (left) explains one of the finer points of robotics. Brazzell is a mentor/coach for local youth robotics clubs. Courtesy Indiana University.Steven wants to be a mechanical engineer, like his dad. And he’s getting a head start in Amy Glassco’s classroom, thanks to eight LEGO Mindstorm robots on loan through a partnership between Indiana University’s Research Technologies (RT), Lawrence County STEAM, and Naval Surface Warfare Center, Crane Division. RT owns the robots as part of its annual Ready, Set, Robots! camps for teens, now in its 12th-straight year.

How, exactly, are robots helping middle-schoolers in Mitchell learn about science, you might be wondering? It all started last summer, when the Indiana Department of Education added new computer science standards that public school teachers would be required to follow. Glassco quickly realized that she didn’t have the training to teach this new material, so she started brainstorming ideas.

She worked with Rob Ping, RT’s manager of education, outreach, and training, to see if they could loan Mitchell schools the Mindstorms, which RT only uses in the summer for the robot camp. Ping made it happen. 

<strong>Digital natives.</strong> There's a lot vying for students' attention these days, but the robotics unit seems to captivate everyone. "Using the Mindstorm robots definitely helped me reach all students," said Glassco. Courtesy Indiana University.“I delivered eight LEGO Robots to the school system late last fall to a large group of very eager students and their teacher,” IU staffer Tony Brazzell said. “Since the delivery, they have created a STEAM team to head up efforts in the class and beyond.”

Working with the robots was a bit daunting for Glassco—at first. A lifelong science lover, with a special place in her heart for astronomy, Glassco knows her way around a microscope or a chemistry experiment but did not have any experience with robotics before inviting Mindstorms into her classroom.

“One of my biggest transformations as a teacher is letting go of the fear of not knowing everything in my classroom,” she said. “If I want my students to have new opportunities and learning experiences, then I have to come to a realization that I may be learning right beside them.”

<strong>Zig zag.</strong> One part of the curriculum includes programming the Mindstorms to follow a path laid out in blue tape. Courtesy Indiana University.Spoken like a true educator. Glassco admits that there’s a learning curve when it comes to the ’bots, but it’s well worth it when she sees their effect on her kids and their futures. She believes students who are able to program and code using robots are more marketable for college and scholarships. Even students who don’t take a direct interest in robotics will likely be affected by robotics in some way with their future job or career, she said.

“It is hard to find interesting ways to engage students in their learning,” said Glassco. “Kids are so used to the television and gaming that it is hard for class to compete with that and maintain student interest. Using the Mindstorm robots definitely helped me reach all students! We work together to solve problems, and yes, sometimes I get schooled by a 13-year-old.”

<strong>Future scientists?</strong> Steven Case (far left) and Hannah Burcham (center, in NASA shirt) are two of the robots' biggest fans. "I love science," said Burcham. Courtesy Indiana University.Someone like Hannah Burcham, for instance. The seventh-grader sported a NASA t-shirt, glasses, and a big smile while working with her team to program their robot to follow a blue masking-tape maze on the linoleum science room floor. “I love science,” she said. “And I like working with the robots. I didn’t know how to program before, so this is something new to me.”

Her classmate Cody Cox is also a fan. “These robots are very cool, definitely!” he said. “There are endless possibilities of what you can do with this technology: you can program them to go through the maze here or grab your water bottle. Robots are our future.”

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