TNCS 4th- through 8th-Graders Build Their Own Robots!

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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.

TNCS Students Get Technical!

tncs-upper-elementary-visit-digital-harborOn November 16th, elementary and middle school students of The New Century School took a field trip to a very special spot in Baltimore City. Digital Harbor Tech Center is a self-described “youth makerspace providing youth with an opportunity to be creative and productive.”

Under the aegis of The Digital Harbor Foundation, the Tech Center opened in 2013, taking over a defunct recreation building on Light St. The next year, they “launched the Center of Excellence to train others how to incorporate making into their own learning environments.” Just 3 years after opening their doors, the Tech Center estimates that, “in 2016, [they] will reach 2000+ students in grades 1-12 from 90 Baltimore-area schools.” They operate on a “pay-what-you-can” basis to allow all interested kids to be able to participate as well as offering free field trips to learn about 3D printing, such as what TNCS students attended last week.

During their 3-hour session in the makerspace, they were first introduced to the Digital Harbor Foundation and the concept behind the Tech Center—and instructed to “look, listen, and learn.” There was definitely lots to look at and lots to learn! Next, for the bulk of the session, they learned and practiced the basics of 3D design, which they ultimately put to use in the execution of their very own custom 3D-printed keychains, the primary endpoint of the session.

To learn 3D design basics, they first discussed 2D design, which takes place on a grid composed of both an x and a y axis, and then added the “z axis” to bring in the third dimension. From there, it was onto a supercool free computer application called “Tinkercad,” which is exactly what it sounds like—tinkering with engineering! The program makes engineering and design accessible to anyone with three simple steps:

  1. Place: Shapes are basic building blocks of Tinkercad. A shape can add or remove material. Import your own, or work with existing shapes.
  2. Adjust: Move, rotate and adjust shapes freely in space. Use tools like the ruler to input exact dimensions.
  3. Combine: Group together a set of shapes to create models as detailed as you want.

 

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TNCS students were asked to complete a set of five fun, interactive tutorials in Tinkercad, each building on the last in terms of skills acquired. When a task was successfully performed, a shower of confetti burst out of the completed design to let users know that module was complete, and they could move on to the next. Immersed was also up to the task, folks, as you can see in the slideshow below.

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TNCS elementary students thoroughly enjoyed their time at the Tech Center and picked up new skills like the innate tinkerers they are. If the concept of “makerspace” is ringing a bell, that may be because last week’s post on the Ozone Snack Bar discussed how that newly opened space might evolve as a makerspace. STEM teacher Dan McGonigal said, “The Tech Center has been on our radar for a while now, and we’ve been wanting to explore 3D printing. Now that we have the 4th-, 5th-, and 6th-grade cohort, we can really do some cool things in engineering. The school founders are very supportive of this idea. We have even discussed the possibility of getting a 3D printer here, but with that being so cost-prohibitive, we wanted to introduce the students first and see how it goes—and it went very well.”

With the fourth quarter of the 2016–2017 school year slated for a Technology and Innovation Unit, expect to hear more about the makerspace idea. Mr. McGonigal hinted that recreating some Rube Goldberg machines might even be in the offing. Meanwhile, here are the fruits of TNCS students’ and other area students’ labor at Digital Harbor Tech Center.