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Elementary students engineer working robots

Posted on Thursday, April 17, 2014 at 9:50 am

Sara Butler, of Engineering for Kids of Central Virginia, sets out a variety of parts for students to use when making robotic arms.

Sara Butler, of Engineering for Kids of Central Virginia, sets out a variety of parts for students to use when making robotic arms.

What happens when learning has no rules or boundaries, no right or wrong answers—and students, left to their own devices to collaboratively solve problems, realize that the correct answer can be anything they want it to be?

Fourteen students at Thomas Jefferson Elementary School were recently able to do just that when they were challenged to use their imaginations and math skills to engineer robots that could throw objects. They had no help with their projects and the possibilities were endless.

The kids, ranging in age between eight and 11 years old, arrived to their after-school program after a long day of school, and couldn’t wait to get their hands on the various parts to build their Lego NXT robot and program it to perform tasks such as throwing a hockey puck between the goals.

Abbie Alpern, 10, who wants to someday be a preschool teacher, said the best part of the program for her was “building our own parts and using our imaginations.”

And for Thor Alewine, 10, who wants to be an engineer one day, it was the interactive pairing of legos and robots that he found most interesting, along with the challenges the project presented.

The students weren’t told how to create their robots, because there is no one particular way to design them. Instead, they were given full license to strategize and design whatever they wanted.

The most important part of the entire education process hinged on giving these young bright minds the liberty to figure it out for themselves.

There is no manual. There are no rules.

“That’s kind of daunting for kids, because they’re used to being told what to do,” Dara Dawson, co-owner of Engineering for Kids of Central Virginia, said.

The budding engineers spent a few weeks building moveable robotic arms and then programmed them to move precisely the way they wanted them to. Through trial and error, the students achieved the results they wanted.

The first class is usually difficult for students, said Dawson, because they’re afraid of being wrong. But by the second class, they are much more comfortable.

The kids are taught that not having something work is part of the engineering process. Going back to the drawing board to retest and re-evaluate the design happens all the time in the real world, she said.

“The first time it doesn’t work, they want it to. They’ve had some success, but not to the degree they wanted it [so they work on it] until they get it right,” she said.

But what is “right” depends upon what the student deems is “right.”

“To watch their faces light up when something works right for them is what teaching is all about—that light bulb, that ‘aha’ moment,” Dawson said.

It’s the joy of watching them learn something on their own that makes it all worthwhile for this veteran math teacher and her co-partner in the business, Sara Butler.

The engineering program was brought to Louisa County’s elementary schools last fall after Patty Seay, a talented and gifted program teacher with LCPS, called the education firm about bringing the program to Louisa.

To read the entire story, see the April 17 edition of The Central Virginian.