Education Students Teach Middle School Robot Camp

Posted: August 8, 2005 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Christopher Anzalone

Last spring, Debra Sprague, associate professor in the College of Education and Human Development (CEHD), and her graduate students began brainstorming ways to counteract the trend of a rising number of middle school students losing interest in academics, specifically mathematics and science.

“We wanted to find an interesting and fun way to reach these students,” says Sprague. “We thought robotics might be a way to generate an interest in science, math, and engineering while helping the students develop skills they could use in college and a future career. In addition, the children would have lots of hands-on experience with computers and learn to work together.”

Robotics camp
Creative Services photo

The result of the brainstorming was the Robotics Enrichment Camp, which ran last week at the Fairfax Campus. Designed for students between the ages of 10 and 15, the camp was offered free to 12 students who might not have been able to attend a summer camp because of cost. Although most of the camp’s students were from Virginia, one came from New York and another from Wisconsin.

To help finance the camp’s operations, Sprague received donations from several local businesses, including Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Barnes and Noble Booksellers, McDonald’s, Target, and Staples. Alexandria City Public Schools provided transportation for their students who attended the camp.

Graduate students in CEHD’s Instructional Technology Program ran the camp, receiving three credit hours for their work, including the initial planning. One of the graduate students who assisted Sprague with planning has returned to her native Pakistan, where she is organizing a similar program.

The students used Lego Mindstorms, Yoiks! and MicroWorlds, programs that are designed to teach computer concepts and programming. Students conducted a scavenger hunt using GPS systems, designed simple machines that could get a raw egg from the top of a table to the floor without breaking it, and watched several PBS Scientific American Frontiers videos that covered topics such as the use of robots and robot competitions. Students also kept web logs documenting their experiences.

The camp culminated in a robot challenge that required the students to maneuver a robot they built and programmed through a maze they designed.

Although the primary focus was on teaching concrete computer, math, science, and engineering concepts, Sprague also wanted to change the students’ perspectives on the process of learning.

“Our other goal was to have the students realize that learning can be fun,” she says. “One of the reasons we start to lose children at this age is because they do not see learning as something that is fun. They associate learning with schooling, which can be un-motivating and boring. Therefore, they associate learning as being un-motivating and boring. We wanted to change that attitude by capitalizing on areas of interest to the children. We made a concerted effort to not do any ‘school’-related activities, but to make the camp exciting, hands-on, and engaging.”

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