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Elementaries dive into robotics

$15K PLTW grant funds supplies, teacher training at Garner, Penn, Van Allen
Sam and Hunter Bray turn a hand-crank generator to produce power at Alliant Energy’s booth during the 2016 Penn Elementary Science Night. (North Liberty Leader file photo)

North Liberty Leader
NORTH LIBERTY– Fifth graders at Garner, Penn, Van Allen and Wickham elementaries will experience what it’s like to use technology to solve real life problems next year when they collaborate with classmates to build, program and test remote-controlled robots. The machines could do things such as remove hazardous materials from a disaster area or deliver supplies to areas within a hospital. A grant of $15,000 from the Project Lead the Way (PLTW) Launch program will make this possible by funding lead teacher training and the purchase of materials for two learning modules that focus on robotics.
“The state of Iowa for the last four to five years has offered grants for schools to increase STEM in their classrooms,” said Diane Schumaker, Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment for the Iowa City Community School District.
She said in past years the district has had schools request grant support for ST Math, an online program, as well as “Pint-sized Science Kits,” modules designed to implement more science into preschool instruction. “This year we have a group of teachers interested in looking at the Project Lead the Way Launch materials to see how they might fit into our curriculum,” she explained.
Leading that group of teachers is Andrew Fenstermaker, a fifth grade science teacher at Penn Elementary. For the last couple of years, Fenstermaker has been having conversations with colleagues about integrating more opportunities for STEM learning into their classrooms. “More and more teachers are really looking at how technology can be leveraged to provide opportunities for students to do some really innovative and creative things,” he said.
Inspired by conversations with Dominic Audia, a science teacher at West High, and with some tactical help from Phil Lala, the district’s science coordinator, Fenstermaker identified like-minded teachers to explore resources available through PLTW Launch, a national program administered at the state level to offer a series of kindergarten through fifth grade science modules aligned with each grade level.
Fenstermaker said teachers at Garner, Penn, Van Allen and Wickam had been doing professional development as a cluster, and that all four schools had “Hour of Coding” components in place. With teachers already onboard with commitments to STEM learning, those buildings became the logical sites to pilot the incorporation of a new science module as a “bonus resource” that might eventually be rolled out to other schools throughout the district.
Fenstermaker also knows that the principals at those schools will give their enthusiastic support to the robotics initiative.
“I am just so excited about giving students the opportunity to work with robots and coding. These are essential skills for our students today,” said Eric Ewald, Principal of Van Allen Elementary, via email.
While the implementation details are still being worked out amongst the fifth grade science teachers, Fenstermaker said they expect to partner and share the resources the grant would provide.
“The robotics module is pretty expensive, so rather than have individual buildings purchase it, schools will pool their resources to pay for the materials,” he explained. “Wickam and Van Allen might partner up to share a robotics kit simply because the way the grant is written, there’s not enough money to purchase kits for each school.”
Then they will likely set up a rotation so that the robotics kits move around the schools, maximizing the benefits for all.
By introducing the robotics component to their curriculum, Fenstermaker and his fellow teachers hope to deliver skills and experiences that will prepare their students to enter professions in the real world. “If you look at some of the skills you can learn by exploring STEM, those skills are transferable across many professions,” he said. “There’s a lot of overlapping skills to try to help kids really understand that what we’re learning in school is not in silos, but it’s actually interwoven across multiple content areas.”
Schumaker agreed. “With the whole STEM initiative we’re trying to integrate science, technology, engineering, math concepts, and we’re bringing those to our students … I think they’re hungry for that. This is really the application piece of all of their science that they’re learning.”
Fenstermaker is excited that the new materials and pilot instruction in all fifth grade classes at the four buildings will introduce a module that not all kids get access to in the current science curriculum. Although he runs the Lego Robotics Club at Penn, Fenstermaker pointed out that it is extracurricular, and may not always engage students who might be interested.
“They hear the word ‘robotics’ and kind of shy away from it,” he said. “Whereas now, this PLTW Launch will provide an opportunity for all students in fifth grade to have access instead of those select few who dedicate time after school to working on the robotics project.”
Ewald echoed Fenstermaker’s concerns, explaining that although teachers and students have participated in the “Hour of Coding” and used Spheros (codeable robots) in addition to various apps and programs, nothing systematic has ever been implemented.
“This will allow for all of our fifth grade students to get this opportunity that all kids deserve. It is engaging learning that pushes their critical thinking skills. Plus, doing this kind of learning is fun,” Ewald added.