Photo by Sarah Cook.
After students build their robot, they program it to navigate a field — or obstacle course — to achieve certain tasks, like knocking down blocks or scooping up objects.
For almost two years, Rebekah Austin, who teaches third grade at Oak Mountain Elementary School, has been using robots to teach students critical thinking skills.
Students are grouped together as a team and given a small robot to build. They then program that robot to navigate through a small field that looks similar to an obstacle course, Austin said.
Watching her students build the robots and program them for specific functions has been something special, she said.
“It’s so cool to see them set their robots out, program it to do something, and then see them say ‘we need to go forward this much more, turn it this many rotations this way’ — that’s a really cool thing to see,” Austin said. “They’re learning so many problem-solving skills and logical-thinking skills.”
Since the program launched at the school last year, Austin has had more than 60 students work with the robots — some even going on to compete in statewide competitions. Because the program is outside of the school’s standard curriculum, Austin has opened her classroom doors after school for kids who want to learn how to use the robots.
In the new year, however, she said the program will be open to 49 of her regular classroom students.
“My classroom students are dying to get their hands on them,” Austin said, who houses all five robots in her classroom along with the field the robots navigate.
The only barrier preventing her from expanding the elementary school’s budding robotics program is having enough robots for her students. Robotics programs are growing in popularity not only at OMES but across the state, Austin said.
“My dream is to eventually have 15 to 20 robots,” she said.
With each robot costing about $350, however, Austin said it might take a while before that dream becomes a reality.
“So far this year, I’ve had some parent donations, which has been great,” she said.
Raj Vedula, whose daughter is in the robotics program, said he would like to see the program continue. Specifically, Vedula said continuing the school’s robotics program is paramount to piquing student interest in engineering and other programming careers.
“There are so many programming jobs available and no one to fill the positions,” Vedula said, who works as a software engineer in the area. “We’re trying to get the word out in the community that if you teach children at a young age to use critical thinking skills, it’s going to go a long way in our society and community.”
Austin said she’s been surprised to see students who typically wouldn’t show interest in robotics benefit from the program.
“Even if I have kids who robots aren’t their thing, the problem solving and the teamwork that they have to do and trial and error — it makes it worth their time,” she said.
By charging a small fee for her after-school program and getting donations from parents and other local entities, Austin said she has been able to steadily raise funds for the program.
Looking ahead to the next school year, Austin said she is hopeful that the school will be able to continue its robotics program.
OMES is one of few schools in the area that is teaching programming skills to students at such a young age, she said.
“There are a lot of life lessons at work there, too,” Austin said, “working as a team, working together to build something.”