Area schools embrace robotics programs
by Laura Gaddy
lbgaddy@annistonstar.com
Oct 10, 2013 | 5248 views |  0 comments | 82 82 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Piedmont Middle School student Samuel Bloodworth uses his MacBook to help operate his robot. (Photo by Trent Penny/The Anniston Star)
Piedmont Middle School student Samuel Bloodworth uses his MacBook to help operate his robot. (Photo by Trent Penny/The Anniston Star)
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Four eighth-graders stood in the Piedmont Middle School media center before a hushed crowd of school administrators this week to display their latest class creation – compact robots.

Two of the students, Gage Curvin and Cole Chasteen, placed a robot made of Lego blocks, a computerized “brain” and four wheels at the start of a small track marked by masking tape on the carpet. Then the pair watched with the administrators as the device, which they programmed in class, followed the course without going out of bounds.

A year ago Piedmont Middle students wouldn’t have had the opportunity to work with robots at school and until recently none of the students in Calhoun County public schools would have. But in recent years public schools in the area have begun offering robotics instruction, and some administrators expect the activity to become as commonplace as school bands.

“Nationally we see the need to start grooming mathematicians and scientists and this is one of the ways you can do that,” said Anniston schools Superintendent Joan Frazier.

Anniston’s schools have offered a grant-funded extracurricular robotics program at the high school for four years, she said. Next year administrators plans to fold the program into the regular school day. Meanwhile, a local civic club is funding a robotics program at the elementary school level.

Educators say the push to offer robotics courses is being driven by two things: Student interest and teacher training. Robotics competitions among students are popularizing the activity. This summer 30 teachers from northeastern Alabama received training in robotics at Jacksonville State University through the Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative, also known as AMSTI.

“The teachers loved it,” said Steve Ricks, director of AMSTI. “They now go back and train their students on it.”

The AMSTI training is funded by a two-year, $200,000 grant. The money is used to pay teachers to attend a week-long course in the summer, for instructors to teach them, and for additional teacher training throughout the year. It also pays for the robot kits.

Teachers from Piedmont and Jacksonville attended the training at JSU this summer and started robotics courses at their schools this year.

Inside Dominic McMath’s robotics course at Piedmont Middle on Thursday, students worked in pairs and in small groups. Some huddled around laptop computers to draft the computer code to make the devices roll. Others tested their robots, which look like remote control cars, watching to see if they would travel within the masking-tape courses.

At first glance their work looks like play, but McMath said it’s about a lot more than that.

“They don’t even realize they’re learning,” McMath said.

Educators say students in the robotics programs learn how to work together, how to write computer code, how to work in groups, how to think critically and how to apply math and science concepts.

“I’m just happy they’re writing code, and they’re using robots,” McMath said.

The skills students learn in robotics courses lay the foundation for future careers in the automotive industry, in the medical field and in engineering, local teachers say.

The Calhoun County school district offers robotics courses to gifted middle school students. The gifted-program teacher, John Moore, said he used grants from industries and state funding to pay the $9,000 cost to get county's robotics program going last year.

“It’s real-world problem solving,” Moore said. “It’s a lot of guesses and checks, go back and figure.”

McMath’s middle school students use Lego kits and software made especially for learning. Called Mindstorm, the Lego pieces for the kit fit together but only vaguely resemble the familiar Legos used for play.

The robots complete tasks such as following tracks, moving mechanical arms and claws, or stopping on command. The devices are controlled through computer programing, or through mobile devices such as smartphones.

Piedmont schools Superintendent Matt Akin said it cost about $35,000 to start robotics courses at the middle and high schools this year. That, in part, is because the individual robot kits are pricey.

At Piedmont High School and Jacksonville High School, students use more sophisticated kits to build larger robots that perform more complicated tasks.

In Susanne Mullinax’s Jacksonville classroom on Thursday, about eight juniors and seniors worked on two of the kits. They used small saws and screws to piece metal parts together atop of a wheeled base.

When the students are done, their robots will be expected to move weighted balls, follow tracks and lift items, Mullinax said.

Offering the course for the first time, Mullinax attended the AMSTI training at JSU earlier this year, where she got the two kits the students worked on in class. The school system also spent about $1,000 for more supplies to offer the robotics course to students this year.

“Kids have an interest in robotics and I’m always trying to find something the kids are interested in,” Mullinax said, while students tinkered nearby.

Staff writer Laura Gaddy: 256-235-3544. On Twitter @LJohnson_Star.

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