Middle-schoolers learn through discovery in robotics challenge

Jun. 25, 2014 @ 06:03 PM

Trial and error has been the name of the game this week, as about 20 middle school students try their hands at making robots that must be able to navigate a tricky obstacle course.

The students have come from all over Lee County to West Lee Middle School, where science and math teachers from various schools mainly have been guiding the rising sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders, letting them figure things out on their own.

"They struggle with it and get frustrated," said Shannon Willaeart, a teacher from SanLee Middle School. "But that's the science part, the trial and error, the engineering part. There's not always just one solution to a problem."

The students are learning that lesson quickly. Using LEGO Robotics kits, they build and program robots that, in theory, should handle the obstacle course. But then they actually run a test and find out that an angle is too wide, or a bump is too large to get over, they have to go back to the drawing board and figure out if the flaw is in the computer programming or in the actual physical construction of the robot.

"We have, like, different missions," said 12-year-old Andrew Jeffries, a rising seventh-grader at West Lee. "But we messed up a turn, so now we're trying to fix it."

Jeffries, who took part in the school system's inaugural camp last year, too, said his favorite part is the programming. He'll probably join the school's robotics club in the fall, he added, to continue building and programming robots all year long.

Another West Lee student at this week's camp, 13-year-old rising eighth-grader Steven McKinney, is already in the robotics club. He said it's one of his favorite parts of school.

"We do pretty much the same thing, having competitions and stuff," he said.

Willaeart, who teaches math and science at SanLee, said one of the goals of the camp is to get more students to join the robotics clubs at their middle school.

She also said she's been surprised and impressed that the students were more active than in a normal class — they were running from table to table or digging through boxes of parts as often as they were working on computers or guiding their robots through the courses — but that they also seemed to be more engaged with the subject matter than in a typical classroom setting.

"I wish I could teach math with robotics," she said.

Driven by the goal of winning the competition, students quickly picked up on different mathematical and scientific concepts. On Wednesday, the teens and tweens weren't engaged in typical middle school banter. They were talking about acceleration, motor power and turning radius, as well as discussing which sizes of wheels, for example, would give their robotic vehicle different advantages in the contest.

They couldn't give up and just ask the teachers for the answer because, as Wellaert pointed out, there are many correct answers and many incorrect answers. Time and time again, students and teachers could be heard saying, "just try it and see what happens."

One person with a leg up was Ernest Lawson, a 13-year-old rising eighth-grader who was on the winning team at last year's robotics camp.

He dubbed his team the favorite to win again this year, although he couldn't say why exactly he's successful with the robots.

"I just like the programming," he said.

Tina Poltrock is in charge of middle and high school instruction for Lee County Schools. She said the district's STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) camps held this summer — there also are some coming up in July focused on pure math and science instead of robotics — are something she wishes had existed when she was in school.

The idea, she continued, is to give younger students an in-depth understanding of math and science topics, so when they get back to school in August they're comfortable with the new material and more eager to take advanced classes at the next level.

"Once they get into high school, they should be more engaged, and more willing and excited, to take courses in science, technology and the math that we offer," Poltrock said.