This Month’s Learning Innovation: Ellis Robotics Builds Leaders
It looks like the students are playing– painstakingly they piece Lego blocks together, making trees, planes, things that look like tractors, towers and cranes. Suddenly the creations come to life, moving, pushing, carrying loads. What are they doing?
These girls are preparing for the First Lego League robotics competition out of Carnegie Mellon University, and they are The Ellis School’s Middle School Team comprising fifth through eighth graders. They are an elite group of students – “the STEAM powered girls” (STEAM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Awesomeness and Math), and what looks like play is actually the team trying to solve a very serious issue using robotics.
They are practicing their “missions” for the 2013-14 First Lego League Competition called Nature’s Fury, according to Dr. Lisa Abel-Palmieri, Ellis’ director of technology and innovation and a team mentor along with Dr. Bambi Brewer, engineering & robotics instructor and Josh Ray, math teacher. The girls were given the task to create robots that would respond to natural disasters; they based their creations on responding to the terrible wildfire that took the lives of 19 Arizona firefighters last year. The girls created the FCD – Fire Communication Device, using robotics to find a method for firefighters in danger to keep abreast of the changing conditions.
It’s just one way of engaging the girls in robotics, an important part of the curriculum at Ellis. “We start exposing Ellis girls to robotics in our Lower School, where they work with the modular robotics Cubelets program. We move into using the Lego NXT robots in the Middle School as part of the First Lego League, but also offer some electives,” Dr. Abel-Palmieri explains. “We also use Arts and Bots Hummingbird kit before students move on to the High School where students have the opportunity to participate in the First Robotics Competition robotics team.”
Why the emphasis on robotics? Dr. Abel-Palmieri feels strongly: “It’s really important that girls learn about robotics especially because they’re underrepresented in these fields, not only robotics but engineering in general. So we engage the girls, especially at a very young age, in technical fields like engineering and robotics and when they can see that they’re solving a problem or it’s tied to some type of community issue that they’re working on – then they know that they are programming and building this robot to help others.”
Most of the teams in the First Lego League Competition are heavily male dominated – lots of boys. Ellis’ team is all girls – and they are proud of that. “Women are just as powerful and just as smart as boys,” said one student. “It’s about helping ourselves to learn things,” added another. “It feels good to be on an all girls’ team because boys aren’t the only ones that can do this.”
Legos are used for these creations for several reasons: They are affordable for a school; they’re non-threatening for the students, and because they’re fun. “So now they’re taking these Legos and extending them even further to do robotics and programming,” explains Dr. Abel-Palmieri. They plug their creations into the computer and they program them to perform tasks. They either use the software that comes with Lego Mindstorms or program in robotics for students who are more advanced.
“I think being part of the First Lego League Team and exposing them to robotics and engineering is going to impact their lives in a number of different ways,” Dr. Abel-Palmieri says. “First of all, they’re going to know that they as a girl can be an engineer, or a scientist or roboticist as well as a boy or anybody else. And so it makes it something that they can identify with. They can also see role models in other women who are in technical fields through events – our team met Firewoman Lisa Epps from the Pittsburgh Fire Department,” who came for the girls’ presentation of their communications device before the entire school.
“She gave us feedback about whether our solution was feasible or if it was just completely made up,” said one FLL Team member. “She said it was viable, that we could do it. We also found out how she became a firefighter and the struggles she faced. She was discriminated against because she’s a woman.”
“By getting out there and presenting their ideas it builds leadership skills and presentation skills,” says Dr. Abel-Palmieri. “It’s so important today to be able to be a presenter and a collaborator. And it’s a learning innovation because it includes science and math, but also research and writing and communicating and connecting with people out in the community, and coming together as a team to solve a challenge.
“There’s even an arts aspect because they design posters and create a video about their project,” she continues. “So it really brings together students with different strengths, connects them to the community and they solve a challenge that is real in the world they live in today.”
Media partnership welcomes NEXTpittsburgh
Joining WQED Multimedia, 90.5 WESA and Pittsburgh Magazine in our “Spotlight on Learning Innovation” is NEXTpittsburgh, a new online magazine about the people, projects and ideas taking Pittsburgh to the next level.
“Our goal is to discover what’s next, who’s leading the charge and where we’re all headed,” said Tracy Certo, founder, publisher and editor. NEXTpittsburgh offers feature stories and news about business and technology, city design, arts and culture, and kids and families.
The four media outlets, TV, radio, magazine and online magazine, are working together to focus on Pittsburgh leadership in the international movement to “remake learning” and create educational opportunities designed for our times.
Made possible through a grant from the Grable Foundation, Learning Innovation focuses on the Pittsburgh region's need to prepare its young people for college and the work force by building on the basics and connecting students with hands-on learning experiences that develop relevant skills.
Assemble provides opportunities for neighborhood children to look, learn, and make in an informal educational environment during monthly Learning Parties.
Cameron Mitchell is eager to ask a question during his interview with Aaron Johnson at McKeesport City Hall, as part of the Crossing Fences program. Photograph SLB Radio Productions, Inc.
GEMS, an afterschool program that provides workshops for girls in grades 6-8 coordinated through the Carnegie Science Center, recently brought the students to see how the brain works. They visited the UPMC Brain Mapping Center.
At Highlands High School, the students in Vicki Uhrinek’s Physics class created a hovercraft that floated around the commons area.
Schell Games, a local gaming company that produces educational materials and innovative experiences, recently collaborated on a program with assemble in Garfield.
The Ellis Geek Squad – a team of Upper School students with a mission to give tech advice and do other “innovative things,” serve as mentors to students – and teachers.
The Highlands High School Bots IQ team assemble the final parts of their robot to prepare for a recent competition.
Students in the Mars Area Middle School 8th grade created a monument similar to Mt. Rushmore for the opening of the new Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture featuring famous African American figures.
Children recording in SLB's studios in the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh. Photos courtesy SLB Radio Productions, Inc.
These kids create Mother's Day Audio Cards in SLB's studios. Photo courtesy SLB Radio.
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