Robotics Program Expands its Reach
Robot rallies may be for kids, but robotics education benefits everyone.
Cal Poly Pomona's robotics program was designed to empower children apply math and science concepts in a fun, hands-on environment. The curriculum has also challenged their teachers to help expand robotics education at their schools.
This year, the initiative's "train the trainers" model is showing signs of success. More than half of the 167 participating students who plan to attend next week's robot rally were taught entirely by their classroom teachers with limited support from university faculty.
"It's really supposed to be their program," says Cesar Larriva, education professor and head of the initiative. "Our goal has always been to develop teachers so they can then help other teachers learn to use the robotics. Over the years, we've moved away gradually, and not only have they become independent, they also have disseminated their knowledge broadly by participating in technology conferences and exhibitions."
The fourth annual Robot Rally will be held on Tuesday, May 18, from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. in the University Quad. Hosted by the College of Education & Integrative Studies (CEIS), the event allows students to show off their creativity, math and technology skills. Participating schools are Montvue and Pueblo elementary schools in Pomona and Collegewood Elementary in Walnut.
The School Robotics Initiative began in 2006 as an interdisciplinary project among Cal Poly Pomona professors and two local elementary schools. Professors visited the schools once a week to teach students to build and program a robot in an effort to inspire interest in science, technology, engineering and math.
The curriculum supports emergent mathematical and scientific thinking and aligns with state and national standards in math, science, literacy and technology. The learn-by-doing lessons exercise students' skills in proportional reasoning, decimals, fractions, measurement and geometry. Students also engage in scientific inquiry and learn to write and communicate orally about challenging technical issues.
"Robotics levels the playing field because it's a new concept for most of the students, and it requires out-of-the-box type of thinking and learning," says Rebecca Norwood, a teacher specialist in Pomona Unified School District.
Throughout the four-month program, the classroom teachers learn alongside their students and eventually are expected to take the lead in teaching and to share the curriculum with their fellow instructors.
"The program makes teachers become learners again and puts us back in that role of a student," says Norwood, who has participated in the program for four years. "It's amazing to go back and see things from a different perspective and to know what it's like to feel lost and confused or to get excited about learning something new. I think that's really good experience for teachers."
The initiative's three-year apprenticeship model aims to establish permanent, self-sufficient robotics programs at each school. The university hopes to develop a network of schools that will give students the option to participate in robotics from elementary through high school. Participating students will emerge with hands-on experience and technical skills that can help them succeed in college.
Lori Huckler, a Collegewood teacher with four years of robotics experience, taught two classes this year; she helped a new teacher start the program and taught her own students. The same is true with Rebecca Norwood, a teacher specialist in Pomona Unified School District who trained a teacher from Montvue. Norwood and Larriva also worked together to grow the program to include two additional classrooms in Pomona.
"We made some initial visits, kept in touch and supported them. But Lori and Rebecca have done most of the heavy lifting, so to speak," Larriva says.
The program more than doubled this year, in part due to the generous sponsorship of Verizon, Time Warner Cable and individual donors. Also, the curriculum has evolved. Teachers have added their classroom experience to improve weekly lessons. As a result, the new teachers seem to learn the curriculum much more quickly, Larriva says. In addition, psychology professor Jill Nemiro and her research assistants are evaluating the program and analyzing data to help improve the program's emphasis on teamwork.
"It's truly a collaborative curriculum development program," Larriva says. "We didn't want to come in with a rigid program. We wanted it to continue to evolve with teacher input, and that's what's happening."
(Top photo: Students work on their robot, "Viper," at the 2008 Robot Rally. Bottom photo: Students watch their robot, "DT Exterminator," fall in the competition.)