Students at Lake Forest Middle School have begun building and writing programs to run robots in an after-school club.
The Lego Alliance Robotics Club got its start after technology teacher Jason Viviano and math teacher Rita Flood were looking for ways to get students interested using the skills they teach outside the classroom.
“We really didn’t have anything like this,” Viviano said.
Both of them stumbled upon the idea of teaching robotics at separate events, and decided to work together to see it happen when school started for the semester.
Now, students meet on a regular basis to build Lego Mindstorms robots. However, the kids don’t just sit around and play with the colorful plastic bricks associated with the products’ brand name.
Flood explained students must make the robots work by using a computer program to create commands for them. The information is stored on a “brick,” a small computer attached to the robots made of the colorful plastic parts.
Each time the club meets, the teachers will give the students certain tasks to complete. On a recent visit to a club meeting, students were tasked with making their robots climb “stairs” made of staggered hardcover books.
Students rarely succeed on the first try, which both teachers see as a positive for their charges’ learning processes.
“The problem-solving skills that are used — those are skills that I work on in math class,” Flood said.
When a student is programming a robot, he or she is also using mathematical concepts like estimation and predicting speeds of motion, she said.
As the teachers spoke about problem solving, two of the students kept going back and forth between their computer and the incline made of books. Their robot, which had legs that inched it along like an insect, kept traveling too far in one direction and falling off course.
Viviano commented that problems like that “encourage them to fail,” and he said he likes to stress that failure is an important part of the invention process. Failure can lead to success if students can apply what they learn from their mistakes.
Both teachers described themselves as “facilitators” for the club. Once the students are taught the basic programming skills, they are left to experiment on their own as they work to solve the day’s tasks.
The club itself meets in two different groups — one for students who are totally new to robotics and one for the more advanced students. Attendance in each group ranges from as few as five to as many as 16.
Viviano said many of the students who are in the clubs “don’t fit the mold” of some of the other after-school activities, and the club allows them to use their creative abilities.
“I would also hope to encourage somebody to pursue a job in engineering,” he said.
The feedback from students has so far been positive.
Student Trent Goins said the club seemed like a natural fit for him because he loved Legos, and he was also familiar with the more technical side of things because his dad is an engineer.
“This is really fun,” he said.
Fellow club member Joseph Rymer said he has learned a lot about programming and wants people to know that they did more than play with Legos.
He explained the robot he had been working on earlier which had been slipping off the books had encountered problems because the structure he built did not support an engine going as fast as the one he had programmed.
Rymer said the plastic pieces and the computer “bricks” have to be paired well for a robot to work.
Other students described the process as “fun” and said they enjoyed building and programming with the others there.
However, as positive as the reviews have been, the teachers acknowledged that the club has faced an unexpected obstacle.
“The girls are apprehensive to join,” Flood said. “It doesn’t come across as feminine.”
She said she and Viviano have been brainstorming ways to get more girls involved with the club in the fall, perhaps even starting a club meeting time just for girls.
While the idea of separating the club members by gender is “not ideal,” Flood said it is just as important for girls to consider entering science, technology or math-related fields like engineering as it is for boys.
Caroline Johnson, who was the only female student at the club’s most recent meeting for advanced students, said it did not bother her to be building robots with a bunch of boys. However, she said she wished more girls would get involved.
“You might think this is just for boys, but there are girls out there who can do this,” Johnson said. “I love it.”
Another future goal is to start a competitive robotics team that will allow the students at Lake Forest to compete against students at other schools to see who is the most skilled.
Flood said the process could allow the students to have a greater sense of teamwork as they work to accomplish their goals. Robotics competitions are also said to be “wildly competitive” and “exciting” to students who are interested in building, programming and fighting robots.
The club, which got its start in January, received help from the Bradley Cleveland Public Education Foundation, which gave the group a $1,000 grant to purchase robotics sets. It later received a grant from the Bradley County school system’s career and technical education office to purchase 12 sets, which cost about $6,000.
The teachers said they were glad for the financial support they received to turn their vision for the club into a reality, and they hope the support will continue as the club grows.