Starting in September, students at will be put to work for a nuclear power plant…in a manner of speaking.
They will be learning to program robots to enter a nuclear reactor and shut it down in the event of an imminent meltdown.
The fictional missions are part of a new pilot robotics enrichment class to be offered through the technical education program next year in grades 6 – 8. About 600 kids will take part, according to Michael Weber, the tech ed teacher who dreamed up the project.
“If all goes well, we’ll put it in the regular tech ed program the following year,” Weber adds.
As part of the new class, students will learn how to program a small robot to perform progressively more difficult tasks, such as moving forward, making a turn and following a path. Then they must build and attach different types of sensors and program the robot to respond to them. For example, they would make the robot turn on or off in response to clapping or back up when it bumps into a wall.
Students will work in groups of three or four to a robot. Once they have the basic maneuvers down, they will be given a mission to carry out, such as the one described above. In order to pass the mission, the robot has to follow a path on a specially designed mat.
At the end of that mission, students face the ultimate challenge: They have to use their creativity to design their own mission and program the robot to carry it out.
“My job is to show the kids how the math and science concepts they’ve been learning apply to real-life situations,” Weber explains. This class does that and promotes 21st century skills like critical thinking and problem solving, he points out.
“I’m having a lot of fun teaching it, too,” he adds.
The robotics pilot class doesn’t officially start until next school year, but the school has already purchased 15 LEGO Mindstorms NXT robot kits at $250 each. The funds come out of the school’s budget. Students in one 8th grade math enrichment class recently started building the robots and getting them ready for next year.
Says Justin McEwen, one of the students building the bots, “This is fun because you don’t usually get to work with your hands all day in school.”
Weber hopes the new class will lead students like McEwen to get involved with LEGO robotics competitions in middle school and serve as a feeder program for high school robotics classes and clubs.
Weber heard about the robots from fellow teacher Gary Maratea, who saw them in use at Dodd Middle School in Cheshire. The two went to observe the Dodd program.
“It was amazing to see the kids so engaged,” Weber describes. They were testing and revising, working together and helping each other out. “There’s lots of collaboration and team building,” he says.
“The kids were almost teaching themselves,” marvels Maratea, who was impressed with the scenarios the students came up with for their missions. One of them involved sending a robot into a cave in Afghanistan.
Weber says he will be busy over the summer building a robotics lab for the class. The lab will consist of a special table on which the robots maneuver, surrounded by a bank of computers.
“In September we’ll be off and running,” Weber says.
Or make that rolling.