Schools show off robot skills

2014-04-15T00:50:00Z 2014-04-15T15:10:18Z Schools show off robot skillsCharlynn Anderson - Daily Herald Daily Herald
April 15, 2014 12:50 am  • 

AMERICAN FORK -- Rolling smoothly to the finish line of the obstacle course, the Westmore Elementary School robot activated its sound box to say, "Great job."

Parents, students and teachers agreed with the robot and cheered its perfect run at the Robotics Showcase at the Alpine School District Professional Development Center in American Fork on Monday.

"We added the sound box because we got to customize the robot. We got to learn how to program and figure out obstacles. I just started with robots. I liked the challenge," said Porter Quinn, a sixth-grader from Westmore Elementary School.

Quinn's team partner, Camille Harrison, said that she had previously built and programmed robots in the National Lego League competitions.

"I liked this program because we had more time to learn and we learned more," Harrison said.

The Robotics Showcase featured one team from each of the 15 Alpine School District elementary schools that participated in the 10-week instructional program for fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade students integrating science, technology, engineering and mathematics concepts into programming and successfully operating LEGO robots.

"This program incorporates all four STEM subjects in a way that is engaging for the students," said Elaine Tuft, Associate Professor of Education at Utah Valley University.

A collaborative effort, the robotics program combined the expertise of Alpine School District, UVU School of Education, and Learning Through Robotics, a local business.

"We are very excited about this opportunity to bring STEM into elementary schools. Mastering these subjects will provide the students many more options in careers and new capacities in the future," said Parker Fawson, Dean of the UVU School of Education.

Eleven elementary education students from UVU trained weekly to master the robotics lessons that they then taught weekly in the 15 Alpine School District schools. A UVU Grant for Engaged Learning paid for the students to teach robotics in teams of three as a part time job.

"It was so rewarding to me that the students were learning and applying what they were learning and got better and better every week. I'm shocked at how fast they caught on. They just loved it," said Grace King, a UVU student teacher who taught robotics in eight schools.

"It's really exciting to have a program this extensive for elementary students. Helping them develop a love of STEM subjects while they're still in elementary school will foster their capabilities and open exciting career choices later on," said Sandra Akagi, Curriculum Director of Alpine School District.

Akagi told the audience at the Robotics Showcase that 540 students from throughout Alpine School District participated in the ASD robotics program.

"They learned about the world around them. Many of the jobs they will have in the future, we haven't even imagined yet," Akagi said.

Jay Jayaseelan of Learning Through Robotics, a Provo company, praised the partnership that brought the robotics program together.

"We trained the teachers every week to go out and teach a math principle and a robotics concept to build the robot and program it to learn a new task," Jayaseelan said.

Jaylene Ahlmann, the Learning Through Robotics program coordinator said that watching the confidence grow in both the students and student-teachers was rewarding.

"The kids were hesitant at first, but they learned to work with teams and enjoy math and feel like they accomplished something," Ahlmann said.

Renya Kikuchi flew in from Japan to attend the event and personally hand out awards to the top teams from each of the 15 schools that participated in the program. Kikuchi donated computer equipment for the ASD program. Through a translator he said that he and his company have been involved in robotics programs like this one for 17 years.

"The reason we picked this area for a partnership is that there are many students here. We hope to improve communication and skills and foster a partnership with Japan where there are many advanced robotics labs," Kikuchi said.

One of the UVU faculty who planned and implemented the cooperative program, Vessela Ilieva said that writing grants, hiring teachers and supporting the teachers in the field helped bring the educational opportunity to the students.

"I personally believe STEM is part of the future and being proactive is the responsibility of everyone. This collaboration is exciting. It's a multi-layered project with opportunities for growth and getting more kids excited about STEM," said Ilieva, a professor in the UVU School of Education.

Chelsea Nelson, a Manila Elementary School fifth-grade teacher said that she could see a difference in the problem-solving skills of her students who were involved in the program.

"The kids just ate it up. They learned to experiment, analyze and keep trying. They kept going through trial and error, and had so much fun," Nelson said.

Melissa Quinn appreciated the robotics program as both a parent and math teacher at UVU. "The kids were doing math the whole time. They were figuring out degrees, angles, circumference. Everything in the programs was based on math. And they were having so much fun doing it," Quinn said.

But for the students, the math served as a way to get the robot to successfully navigate the obstacle course. When asked what she learned, a student from Cascade Elementary School said, "We learned that if you do one little mistake it could turn into one big problem."

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