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AMS robotics class inspires new scientists

September 9, 2011

By COLLEEN MCCARTHY
sdnedu@bellsouth.net

“You didn’t calibrate it correctly!”
Those aren’t words you hear your average middle schooler say very often.
But then again, Jackie Wilt’s robotics class at Armstrong Middle School isn’t your average science class.
In this class, sixth through eighth graders learn to build, program and operate real robots.
“What we do is try to get kids interested in engineering and technology,” Wilt said. “It’s a different approach to get the kids involved in science, engineering and technology.”
The program started at Armstrong as an after-school club just last year. This year, the club expanded into a full class. The class is split up into two teams and each team is split up into different divisions: programing, building and research.
“So far, it’s been pretty fun. I’ve been mainly helping with the building, trying to figure out how to solve the problem. The building is coming from our own imagination,” AMS eighth grader Troy Johnson said. “I don’t like programing very much, though.”
In December, the teams will compete in a statewide competition in Hattiesburg. The competition will challenge the students to solve a real-world problem — food contamination — in a new and creative way.
“We’re dealing with food contamination all the way from when the food is growing in the field up until someone eats it, and we’re going to look at all of those aspects. They will research that topic and put together a presentation,” Wilt said. “They have to come with an innovative solution as to how to they can fix and actually either build it or come up with a design. The robot is fun, but the research is huge.”
The teams will run their robots through an obstacle course during the competition. Some members will be responsible for building a robot able to handle the challenge, while others will program the robot to complete the task. It will take the entire team to make sure the robot completes the course and accomplishes the challenge.
“I’ve really learned a lot about team work,” Montario Montgomery, an eighth grader who is in his second year with the program said. “My favorite part is getting to meet new people. This class has a lot of people that you normally wouldn’t hang out with, but now you see them in the hall and you can say ‘Hey, that’s my buddy from class.’”
The program places a special emphasis on team work. Each team must come up with a list of core values that govern how they interact with each other both in the class and during the actual competition. Among Wilt’s class’ values are team work, displaying gracious professionalism and seeking guidance from their teachers and coaches while always solving the problem for themselves.
“The gracious professionalism is huge. For middle schoolers — well, for anybody — to work together and be nice is difficult. To work together and learn how to use each other’s ideas is important,” Wilt said. “Sometimes they have trouble with that because I have top-notch students in here and they’re used to being right all the time. Well, it’s not going to work that way in this class. They have to learn to work with each other.”
At the competition, the teams are given a secret challenge and are judged on their ability to come up with a plan and work together to solve the problem. Last year, the Armstrong team received an award in the core values category.
“Last year, there was a table and they told us we had two minutes to plan what we were going to do. We had different sized balls and straws and we had to figure out how we were going to move those balls down to a target. We had not practiced it; we didn’t know how we were going to do it,” Wilt said. “They were watching how the kids worked together and do they follow their plan that they created. That’s something that they have to practice throughout the year.”
Camgian Microsystems, a technology company based in Starkville, has sponsored the program at Armstrong since the beginning.
“It’s important for us to give back to the community in Starkville. The program really spikes the interest of students in areas of science, math and engineering,” Ann Johnson, Camgian’s office manager said.
The skills taught during the class will translate well to other subjects and eventually into the workforce. Science and technology jobs will continue to be in high demand in the future, so Wilt’s said she felt these kind of programs are essential and she hopes schools will continue to provide them.
Each school can only bring three teams to the state competition each year. If it has more, it must hold a school competition to determine who will go to the state level. That is exactly what Wilt would like to see by next year.
“So many more people would loved to be involved, but I can only handle 16. I would love to teach only this class. Right now, I can only affect a few students, but this class could do so much for so many students,” she said. “I would love to take this to a much higher level.”
During the second half of the year, Wilt’s class will be taking what it has learned a step further and building an underwater robot.
“They really are doing a lot of problem solving, a lot of thinking, a lot of working together in the class while incorporating math, science and English skills,” Wilt said.

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