In the past couple of weeks at The New Century School, 4th- through 8th-graders explored a very special new mini-unit in science—robotics. Robotics is the interdisciplinary branch of technology involving the design, construction, operation, and application of automatons (you know, robots). It integrates mechanical, electronic, and information engineering as well as computer science for the development of ‘bots in addition to the computer systems that control them, captures their sensory feedback, and processes the information they gather.
Benefits of Robotics Class
Cool, right? Even cooler in school, right? You bet your motherboard. Robotics in education is one way that schools can prepare this generation for a (near) future in which technology is ubiquitous and, frankly, has already changed the way we do almost everything, almost everywhere. (“Siri, look up the history of robotics.” “Alexa, play some background techno.”) Students are going to need to be prepared in adult life with the programming and other skills required to . . . pilot a spacecraft to Mars, say.
Much more importantly, though, is how robotics gets students really thinking creatively—from designing their ‘bot to building it—this baby is all theirs, and the level of concentration they bring to executing their ideas is a testament to how engaged they are. Speaking of concentration, research shows that hands-on learning activities (like robotics) actually enhance concentration and attention levels. And then there’s the perseverance that robotics demands. Problem-solving and trouble-shooting through any obstacles along the way helps students develop determination. There’s a built-in payoff after all—if they work through their frustration and maintain a mindset of try, try again, they get a working robot out of the deal!
Depending on the particular activity, collaboration and teamwork—two more super buzzwords—might also come into play.
Above all, kids love robots! R2-D2, WALL-E, HexBugs, Iron Man . . . robots and robot gear have clearly fascinated them for decades. (Don’t even get us started on Leonardo Da Vinci, who began constructing robots as early as the late 1400s . . .). The point here is that when kids enjoy an activity, they want to do more of it, which, in the case of robotics, translates to exponentially more and better learning.
Domo Arigato, Mr. Robotics!
That’s where TNCS dad Travis Hardaway enters the picture. “I’ve been building a robotic lawnmower since last fall because we have a very steep and dangerous hill to mow,” he explained. “Last summer I rolled my John Deer and decided I’d see if I could come up with a different approach to cutting the grass. Both of my children have taken an interest in watching my progress, and we’ve gone to several classes at The Foundry (which has sadly closed down) in 3D printing, laser carving, and other things.”
So, he brought his ideas to Mrs. Sharma’s middle school science class to see what the 6th-, 7th-, and 8th-graders would do when handed a soldering iron! “Robotics is an important and growing field and will play an increasingly bigger part in our lives in day-to-day interactions, and other unseen ways,” said Mr. Hardaway. “I believe that robotics now is in a similar state to computers in the 80s and early 90s, and kids who get involved early on will be in a position to help shape the field. Robotics is also great for kids because they get to make physical things and learn about fundamental electronic principals.”
DFRobot, the company who makes the kits Mr. Hardaway used says this of its product:
Meet Mr. NEON, the light chaser beam robot that can help kids or novice electronic enthusiasts learn about things like soldering and simple knowledge of circuit. Mr NEON is designed to look like a three-leg monster whose eyes or tentacles glow in accordance with ambient light level. The stronger the light is, the faster it moves. There is no programming involved and all soldering is intuitive and rookie-friendly. So it is perfect for novice electronic enthusiast. Also you can give Mr. NEON different face through changing the expression stickers.
The middle school session was such a huge success that Mr. Hardaway returned to do a session with the 4th- and 5th-graders. This time, though, he says, “I thought I might solder the transistors in place beforehand to save time and give the younger students a greater chance of success.”
When asked what prompted him to take on such an ambitious project with TNCS students, given that his “real job” is in the field of music, he replied in this way:
I don’t have an education in robotics or electronics, but I’ve been taking things apart and tinkering for my entire life. I got a BigTrak when I was a kid for Christmas and spent hours programming it to drive around our house. In high school, I was interested in both music and computers, and, although I took the AP in computer science and did several summer internships, much to my parents dismay, I chose to pursue a degree and career in music. While I haven’t tried to tie music and robotics together yet, it is appealing. When I was teaching at Hopkins, I did have my students invent their own electronic instruments to perform on, and they came up with some pretty clever ideas.
And his impression of the experience?
It was a lot of fun! The experience at TNCS was fantastic and exhausting. I learned a lot about working with younger kids in the classroom. I was really impressed with how quickly they picked everything up. Some of them didn’t follow the instructions exactly and had to improvise, but they came up with interesting adaptations. Not every robot worked, but there is a lesson in that, too, and they had a great attitude about failure, which is definitely a possibility when you are building something for the first time.
Want more robotics for your kids? Baltimore does not disappoint. Digital Harbor Foundation, FutureMakers, and Baltimore Robotics Club are just a few of the opportunities available for kids to explore and create in the innovative world of ‘bots.