November 18, 2018

Picking Up STEAM

Want to be in with the cool kids at school? Get in with the robotics gang.
By Ross Boissoneau | Sept. 1, 2018

Robots have fueled our imaginations for decades in books, TV, and movies. Today, what was science fiction is becoming the stuff of everyday classroom learning, from the high school level to elementary classrooms.
 
Philip Leete is one of those at least partially responsible for the Grand Traverse area’s growing zeal for robotics. The onetime TCAPS teacher co-founded the Quarkmine Space at Logan’s Landing, first as an adjunct to his teaching, then as his full-time focus.
 
Also at work promoting robotics is the state, which recently announced grant funding of $3 million from the Michigan Department of Education for robotics programs in public schools (with another $300,000 for private schools).
 
School districts can use the grant funds to participate in either the FIRST Robotics program and competition, with the World Championships returning to Detroit next April, or the VEX Robotics program and its Robotics Education and Competition (REC). What’s the difference? Leete compares the two different programs to different sports.
 
“It’s like basketball and soccer. They play on different fields with different types of balls. These programs have different competitive seasons, equipment, platforms, and coding language. But they are both about thinking, problem-solving, and creative design.”
 
Moreover, the state notes that both robotics programsare focused on those STEAM applications — hence the availability of grant funding. “It’s a great year to start or grow a robotics program,” said Leete.
 
John Gilligan is Leete’s partner at Quarkmine. The onetime IT worker and programmer found the enthusiasm of the students contagious. “I started as a mentor of a team,” he said. “Now I work for the REC Foundation (Robotics Education & Competition).”
 
He works with teams and events across the state, even the country. “There’s no typical day,” he said with a laugh. “Today I had meetings in the morning, worked with local robotics teams, did a webinar with the Michigan Department of Education to help schools with grant funding, worked at Quarkmine, had another Department of Education meeting for non-public schools, showed a new V5 system to another robotics team.” The next day he was scheduled to meet with the superintendent, principals and staff at Kingsley about getting robotics there up and running.
 
While Quarkmine is located in Traverse City, the interest in robotics is spread far and wide. In Petoskey, science teacher Tom Ochs serves as lead coach for teams in Petoskey and Charlevoix. Petoskey recently hosted a conference open to all teams from the area. “Kids are presenters, teaching other kids – programming, CAD, marketing, safety,” he said.
 
Ochs said there are 40 to 50 students involved in Petoskey, and 20 or so in Charlevoix. He said there were around 200 people at the conference.
 
Those involved say that, while after-school programs are a great way to start, getting robotics into the classroom where all the students can and are expected to participate is the best way for the school to reap the benefits of a program. “All our seventh graders are taking a robotics class as a nine-week rotation. It’s great to hit all the kids,” said Marc Alderman, an instructor at Benzie Central.
 
While some of the students may initially embrace it and race ahead, those who are more passive learners are able to move at their own pace while still learning the basics of the technology. All those involved say not only does the interest in robotics lead to better understanding of STEAM practices, it helps kids in many other ways, including teamwork and self-esteem.
 
The interest in and availability of robotics stem from several factors. Primary among them are the recognition that robotics provides several academic benefits as well as the fact that, like computers, prices for robots have sharply decreased in the past several years. “Costs are so far down,” said Leete. Robot kits can start as low as $100, though they might more typically run between $300 and $400 for classroom use.
 
Funding comes from schools, the state and, in many cases, the public. “The community from Bellaire is supporting it,” said Chris Vandergriff, an instructor in Bellaire who coordinates the school’s teams. “The Lego team is an after-school program, and it just blew up,” he said.
 
He said robotics is part of an effort to bring more activities and experiential learning into the classroom. He estimated that in the middle school there are 33 students involved; from 4thto 12thgrade, more than 50. This year the program is being expanded down to second grade. “A team with second graders did a great job among fourth-graders as a pilot,” he said.
 
Ochs said those students who are initially interested are typically very enthusiastic. “With my high school teams, I’ve had kids beating down the doors [to get in]. I may get to leave [school] at 9pm,” he said.
 
The programs have real world applications, even while the students are still in school. “Last year the Lego team with Tip of the Mitt Watershed looked at the lake colors,” said Ochs, to help determine where septic systems were potentially polluting waters. The teams also worked with GoBabyGo!, a national initiative to provide mobility opportunities to children age 5 and under who have mobility challenges. Toy ride-on cars are modified to provide mobility and sociability for children. “Camp Transition was a camp for sight-impaired [kids] at Camp Daggett.”
 
Even the competitions fuel cooperation. For example, the challenges may involve two teams of students and their robots working together, with both teams collecting the same number of points based on their mutual success. Then they switch off with other teams, until all the groups have worked with one another. The one with the most points wins.
 
Ochs has started a program to reward and recognize students for their achievements. He said First Badges (firstbadges.com) are similar to merit badges in scouting. “It’s a way for schools to quantify what students are learning,” he said. His hope is that schools eventually use the badges as high school credits.
 

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