Welcome to Robotics

“When we allow children to experiment, take risks, and play with their own ideas, we give them permission to trust themselves. They begin to see themselves as learners who have good ideas and can transform their own ideas into reality.”

–Sylvia Libow Martinez and Gary Stager, Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering and Engineering in the Classroom

The cheers coming down the C wing hallway in December drew me, along with a number of other curious students and teachers, into Dr. Mike McFarland’s Robotics classroom just before the holiday break. There we found students huddled around a makeshift hockey rink constructed out of concrete blocks as their robot teams battled to push the donut shaped puck through the opponent’s goal.

One of the female observers I wandered in with turned to me and asked with a touch of wonder, “What is this class?”

“Welcome to Robotics,” I replied.

Using the Lego EV3 robots purchased with HPTA funding and a Lego Mindstorms Commander App that enabled them to use smartphones as controllers, student teams held our attention as they tested their robot designs in an all-out 3 v. 3 “Hockeybot” competition. Each side worked together to foil their opponents while simultaneously doing all they could to put the puck in the “net.”

The competition came down to one final match, with the two sides tied 4-4. Amidst cheers, complex strategies (“pummel him!”), and a smattering of good-natured trash talk, victory was secured when the three robots on one team combined their efforts to power one robot over the goal line with the puck stuck under its base for the win.

Hockeybot. Maze Runner. King of the Mayan Temple. These fun challenges were only part of the students’ learning experience in HHS’s new Intro to Robotics course. Much more than the sweet taste of victory (or the agony of defeat), this course is about teaching students to use the engineering design process to design, propose, plan, create, code, and iterate robots of their own invention. The course also helps students develop other 21st-century competencies and engineering skills like project and time management, resource allocation, information accessing, systems understanding, teamwork, critical thinking, and problem solving.

Taught by Dr. McFarland, the course uses repurposed Lego NXT robots from the Middle School’s extracurricular robotics club (which was parent run and is no longer active). Thanks to the support of HPTA robotics club coordinator Amanda Fargiano and additional support from an HPTA grant used to purchase a complete classroom set of more advanced EV3 robots and RobotC programming software to differentiate instruction for more experienced programmers, the course came to life this past September — and students love it. Both the Fall and Spring sections are full, and the popular appeal is sure to result in even more enrollments for next year.

Last week HHS invited members of the HPTA to visit during the final day of the course’s culminating challenge, “King of the Mayan Temple,” which involved programming robots to climb a temple-like structure in order to claim victory. In addition to watching the challenge in action, HPTA representatives spoke to Dr. McFarland about the curriculum and learning activities, and chatted with students as they “iterated” on the fly in effort to win the challenge.

Here’s some of the feedback from our HPTA visitors:

Robotics2015“The conversations students are having about their creations are amazing.”

“I was super impressed by the robots and the determination of the students!”

“Such a great opportunity to be able to see a terrific class and watch the students (and their creations!) in action!”

“I am so proud that we have been able to support hands-on robotics learning at the high school.”

And the students? They don’t want the course to end and asked me to see if HHS would add a Robotics II to the Program of Studies for next year. That says it all, really.

Thanks again HPTA!

By Colleen Worrell, PhD, Secondary Technology Integration Coordinator

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