Robotics is a form of learning STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) that exercises several aspects of hand and brain development for a learner. Assembling a structure from LEGOs, or laser cut or 3D printed parts is step one. This part of design and engineering is obvious to most of us, but there also lies a deeper level of learning when students begin to program their own objects to perform tasks.
Hillbrook students come to middle school with a range of experiences using technology, programming and building. To level the playing field and to ensure that every middle school student has access to the benefits of robotics, design and programming, 6th grade science teacher Ilsa Dohmen spends several weeks in the spring using LEGO NXT Mindstorm kits to introduce her students to computational thinking, building and programming. Beginning with a challenge where students are given most of what they need to build a working robot except wheels, students learn the basics of [If, Then] programming. These challenges included programming the assembled robots to drive one meter forward, any distance backward, make a square, and make a circle with a large diameter.
During this unit Dohmen reports that “students encountered new concepts and tough problems, including the existence and function of an axle, the ideal amounts of friction between axle and wheel versus axle and motor, different ways to balance weight of the body on the motor arms, and how to stabilize wheels that wobble or slip on the floor. After the initial mechanical challenges, students particularly found the programming of the square hard work. Even after discovering a method for making a right angle turn, many groups found that imbalances and imperfections in the physical bot made repeating the same code for each turn insufficient; the same code repeated had reduced effects (e.g. resulting in the first turn being right angled and subsequent turns usually being not sharp enough).”
Thanks to new math teacher Chris Cabrera, the 5th and 6th graders were using Codeacademy in math class this fall. When the vast majority of programming jobs only require middle school level math knowledge, it is refreshing to see the use of nontraditional modes of expressing and exploring math through programming. 8th grade geometry students have also been introduced to the use of the programming language Python to create turtle art patterns which mimic fractals. These programs can then be sent to the school’s laser cutters and printed into compelling works of art.
New this fall (2015), the 7th and 8th graders were offered an elective called “Robotics and Programming” taught by mechanical engineer Shea Ellerson. Ellerson built on the work done in 6th grade by introducing Hillbrook students to more powerful microprocessors such as the Arduino and Raspberry Pi. In this series of quarter long courses, students were challenged to design and build their robots from scratch using the laser cutter and available materials. Programming tools used during the programming elective included Scratch, which is a learner friendly, yet powerful tool for making digital models, animations, or games and Python.