The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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February 14, 2013

Robots teach Thomas Jefferson students about programming, patience

JOPLIN, Mo. — Jaden Moore watched as her robot slowly approached the small red ball, its light blinking to indicate that one of its sensors had identified the object.

But instead of rotating its extended arm and knocking the ball off its platform, as Jaden was trying to program it to do, the robot retreated from the ball.

Jaden knew something in her programming had gotten lost in translation. Without batting an eye, the 10-year-old picked up her robot and returned to her computer, even as her instructor, Robert Carlson, encouraged her to try again.

“Why don’t you plug it back in and see if you can figure out why it’s backing away?” he suggested.

Jaden is one of 14 fifth-graders at Thomas Jefferson Independent Day School participating in the new Robotics Academy, an after-school club in which students learn about engineering, math, science and programming through the use of Lego Mindstorm robots. The club is led by Carlson, the school’s director of communications and technology, and Gay Currence, who teaches science in the elementary school.

A recent afternoon’s objective was for students to program their robots — using a robot’s ultrasonic sensor that measures distance from an object and the light sensor that determines the color of an object — to approach the red ball and kick it off its platform. By the end of the hour, Jaden’s robot had successfully knocked the ball off; it was the first one of the bunch to do so.

Jaden said she has had fun learning how to build and program the robot.

“We’ve been able to make it turn around according to the light in the room, and if it senses a wall, it will turn around,” she said.

Creating the programming to make the robot function is like an experiment, Jaden said.

“We have to try a lot of different things and learn a lot of different things,” she said. “You don’t always get it perfect the first time.”

Luke Goodhope, 10, joined the club because of his interest in robotics. He said he was trying to make his robot sense the colored ball in front of it and modify its behavior based on that color. If the robot sensed a darker color, it was supposed to back up, he said; if it sensed a lighter color, it was supposed to knock the ball over.

Luke said his primary challenge with the task was programming the robot to sense the object in front of it.

“It’s pretty much trial and error,” he said. “It’s fun trying to figure out how to solve all the problems you have doing it.”

Luke said that in addition to learning the basics of computer programming, he has picked up another valuable life lesson.

“I’ve learned how to not get too frustrated when you do something wrong because it happens a lot,” he said.

With aspirations to be an inventor and a chemist some day, Luke said he would like to program his robot to do his homework for him, although he speculated that might take him years to figure out.

“It’d be really complicated to make it do that,” he said.

Currence, the science teacher, said the Robotics Academy reinforces math and science skills for her students, and introduces concepts in engineering, programming and technology. Even basic life skills, such as following directions, were reinforced when students built their robots during the first week, she said.

“It’s for sure a challenge, a great challenge as a little extra incentive for the kids interested in science,” she said. “They’ll use (those skills) on through the rest of their life.”

Carlson said he sees the students learning how to think ahead through potential errors in their robots’ programming, which is a skill critical to planning and problem-solving.

“They’re learning it (the robot) doesn’t necessarily think through the things that you didn’t think through,” he said.

Carlson said the students, not surprisingly, have been eager to experiment with their robots’ programming. After tackling the challenge of knocking the ball off the platform and suggesting it was akin to the robot playing baseball, they next questioned, and naturally so, whether they could make the robot play basketball.


STUDENT RESPONSE to the after-school Robotics Academy at Thomas Jefferson Independent Day School has been so strong that instructors plan to offer a similar program next year to middle school students as an elective course, said Gay Currence, club sponsor and science teacher.

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