An innovative science project has fourth-graders building and programming
small mobile machines.
By LIZ F. KAY, TIMES STAFF WRITER
Amir Mosallaie's robot stays where it's told.
The 9-year-old programmed the brick-sized robot to remain within the confines
of a black oval ring printed on a large sheet of paper. When its light sensor
detects black, the contraption, built of Lego brick and a microcomputer, backs
up, turns around on its four rubber wheels and plays "Fur Elise."
Amir's fourth-grade class at Highland Oaks Elementary School in Arcadia is
testing a novel program using robotics in basic science classes. His teacher,
Coyla Grumm, said the program teaches more than just scientific concepts; it
also addresses problem solving and teamwork. "It's that thinking process," she
said. "They're choosing what they want to do. They're challenging themselves."
Robotics for older children isn't new. But in most school districts, it is an
elective or a specialized program offered only to middle or high school
Arcadia Unified School District's approach is different. The district wants
students to build and program robots as part of the basic science curriculum
for elementary and middle school--studying scientific principles by putting
them to work.
The robots aren't cheap. Equipping the school for the pilot cost more than
$29,000. And district officials warn that educators should be wary of useless
products billed as educational that amount to little more than toys.
"They're battlebots for kids," said Robert Leri, the Arcadia district's
director of technology and information services, referring to the Comedy
Central show in which people build robots to duke it out in a ring.
Two years ago the district tested--and rejected--another robotics program
because officials thought it didn't enhance higher-order thinking skills.
To avoid such problems, Grumm and Genna Helmberger, a science teacher at Dana
Middle School in Arcadia, spent a year researching available products. They
focused on using robotics to apply concepts in the standard science
curriculum, such as mechanics.
"I'm not teaching robotics; I'm teaching science," Helmberger said.
In the classroom, teams of two or three students work with the Mindstorms kit,
which consists of a block that contains a small computer, two motors, sensors,
gears, wheels and lots of little pegs and Lego bricks. The district also
bought a laptop computer for each team to use the software.
To complete their tasks, the kids build robots following specific
instructions. They then write programs on laptop computers and download them
into the robots.
They can use the sensors, which can detect light or touch, and program the
robots to react to their environment--playing a note or moving a gear, for
One touch of the button and the robots are off--or maybe not.
"If you make a tiny little mistake, you have to take it apart and do it all
over," said Monica Palos, 9, of Monrovia. The process forces the students to
backtrack and work through the problem themselves.
As a final project, the children programmed robots to perform a series of
tasks of their own choice as a Big Showoff. Three girls had improved the
original design for their robot, using two light sensors to allow the machine
to follow a black piece of tape on the floor.
"We added different stuff. We wanted to make a mix-up," said Palavi Bugga, 9.
Students found the new approach engaging.
"Usually I hate science," Amir said. "We just talk about oceans and stuff."
The curriculum also challenges teachers. As soon as the announcement is made
that robotics time has begun, the 8- and 9-year-olds stream around the
classroom, grabbing their laptops, robots and boxes full of gears and Lego
They move tables and desks, revealing mazes they had laid out on the floor
with black tape. Others build mazes out of bricks for robots with pressure
sensors to navigate.
"One thing I have learned from the beginning is that you can't control" the
children, Grumm said.
The teachers do need to keep track of the kits' more than 700 pieces, many of
which measure less than a square inch. Grumm reinforces that fact by having
students start their lessons by sorting pieces into the many compartments of
Robotics' "academic aura" and fun applications make it the most popular way to
get applied science into schools, said Ken Berry, director of the
International Robot Education Group and professor of educational technology at
Cal State Northridge.
Berry works through the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's office of education and
public outreach. He maintains an e-mail list of about 400 educators in
Southern California who are interested in robotics.
Arcadia Schools Supt. Mimi Hennessey was sold on robotics three years ago.
"These are some of the most important things we can be teaching students, and
habits of rigorous thinking that need to be learned and practiced throughout
schooling," she said.
But some moments in the unit show that old incentives die hard.
For their Big Showoff, teammates Palavi, Samantha Miller and Christina Kim,
all 9, programmed a roverbot to follow a black line on the floor and deliver a
note and piece of candy to their teacher at her desk.
Grumm read the note with gusto: "Happy Robot Day! Now do we get an A?"
--- --- --- --- ---
Useless hypotheses, etc.:
consciousness, phlogiston, philosophy, vitalism, mind, free will, qualia,
analog computing, cultural relativism, GAC, Cyc, Eliza, cryonics, individual
uniqueness, ego, human values, scientific relinquishment, malevolent AI,
We move into a better future in proportion as science displaces superstition.
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