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Davis teachers learn to use robots in daily lessons

By From page A1 | August 05, 2014


Sharon McCorkell, a science teacher at King High School, guides her pre-programmed robot around a blue circle during a training session last week at the Yolo County Office of Education. Wayne Tilcock/Enterprise photo

Sharon McCorkell watches her robot trace a blue-painted circle, following closely but never straying from its route. When it finishes the task, she raises her hands in jubilation.

That great feeling of a job well done is what she wants to cultivate in her science students at King High School. So she and fellow King High teacher Cathy Haskell learned how to integrate robotics into their classroom instruction at a recent 60-hour training program held at the Yolo County Office of Education.

They joined about 60 teachers of sixth- through 12th-graders from around the region at the Woodland training sessions.

For Haskell, a veteran math teacher, learning how to program a small robot was a bit like going back to school.

“And it’s always a good reminder (to me as a teacher) to feel like a student,” Haskell said. “I’m really hoping that the robotics and the programming will work at King to help engage students. This is a chance for our regular students to see robotics in their daily curriculum” — rather than as an advanced science course that students have to choose as an elective, or an after-school club activity.

McCorkell said she was impressed by the training sessions.

“It’s a very remarkable undertaking; it was surprising how in-depth and user-friendly the whole program has been,” she said. “They’ve basically taught us how to program the robots, and then we collaborate with others about how to use it.

“You have to think like a programmer,” she continued. “And then if you make a mistake, the computer will tell you. This kind of (classroom) program kind of levels the playing field. You can tap into your students’ strengths, and challenge them with some problem-solving. They’ll learn a skill that is marketable.

“And even if you don’t go into that field (robotics), it trains kids to think in a linear, logical fashion. It makes a whole world of instruction available.”

The training sessions, held from July 21 through Aug. 1, were organized through a partnership between the Yolo County Office of Education and the UC Davis Center for Integrated Computing and STEM Education (C-STEM, with STEM standing for science, technology, engineering and math).

This summer’s training sessions are part of a three-year program that is being supported by a $1.5 million grant from the California Department of Education’s California Math and Science Partnership program.

The sessions use a programming language and integrated development environment developed by professor Harry Cheng of the UCD mechanical and aerospace engineering department, in conjunction with educational robots (called “Linkbots”) from a company called Barobo. The company is a commercial spinoff of technology developed in the Integration Engineering Laboratory at UCD.

One of the main aspects of the training sessions was an activity called “RoboPlay,” which the UCD C-STEM Center describes on its website this way: “The RoboPlay Challenge Competition is designed for K-14 students to showcase their real-world problem-solving skills in a competitive environment. This competition simulates an unexpected problem occurring at a remote location such as a space station or planetary habitat, where a robotic solution must be quickly developed and deployed, using only existing resources.

“The competition challenges students to creatively use modular robots and accessories to complete various tasks. The competition arena and specific challenge will be kept secret until the day of the competition. Using their math, programming and problem-solving skills, students try to most efficiently get the highest score for each task.”

Deb Bruns, project director of the Yolo County Office of Education’s CaMSP C-STEM program, which organized the training sessions, said the idea is to help students — and teachers — who might not automatically think of themselves as “techies” to see that they can program a robot, and enhance their math skills in the process.

“Math teachers can do this in their math class, and see that their students learn mathematical concepts and practices better through doing hands-on activities like robotics,” Bruns said.

The program also ties in with the new Common Core academic standards, which put an emphasis on using math to do problem-solving, rather than rote memorization.

Heidi Espindola, C-STEM Center program manager at UCD, was another organizer of the training sessions. She said that programming a small robot in class helps students grasp that science and math “aren’t just abstract concepts. … It forces them to think about what they’re doing” as they figure out the problems in the program that they’ve written for their robot, “instead of trying to answer questions through memorization. And today’s students need to work collaboratively,” she added.

Participating teacher Kim Stowell of Albert Einstein Middle School in Sacramento compared what she learned with other robotics activities at her school.

“Obviously, I liked the RoboPlay,” Stowell said. “But specifically, I appreciated how it simulates the experience for the students.

“We are experienced with the First Lego League and First Tech Challenge competitions. However, in contrast to those competitions, RoboPlay focuses on the programming, instead of the robot design,” she continued.

“In the First Lego League and First Tech Challenge competitions, we feel that teachers/parents are more involved in the design of the robot, where this competition creates a more level playing field” for students who come from different family backgrounds in terms of household income or parental background in science and math.

— Reach Jeff Hudson at [email protected] or 530-747-8055.

Jeff Hudson

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