This Month’s Learning Innovation: Clairton Robotics
Clairton High School is known for its football team, the Bears, which put together an amazing 66 game win streak. They get a lot of publicity. Lesser publicized -- but growing -- is a program introduced by Industrial Arts Teacher Dennis Beard. Four years ago he introduced what he calls a “smart sport” to the school: Robotics, and especially the BotsIQ program.
“It was something new and exciting for the kids to do to get involved in things other than sports,” Dennis explains. “It’s a smart sport because it helps further their education in math and science – and it’s fun to do because they get to beat things up.”
The robotics program was inspired by the BotIQ summer camp Dennis’ son had attended. There the students learned to build robots, specifically “battle bots,” that compete against each other in gladiator-style combat. In the process of creating these battle bots, students use science, engineering, math, even English. His son loved it, and Dennis, as a long-time industrial arts teacher, thought it would be a great fit for Clairton.
“It started out as an experiment,” he says, with Dennis purchasing the parts he needed on the internet with his own money. When he connected with Southwestern PA’s BotsIQ program, he found guidance and a good fit. The program oversees competitions between schools and offers help in developing curriculum and much more.
At Clairton, Dennis’ students design and build “battle bots,” taking them from the earliest phases through a wooden prototype and then a metal creation. Everything that goes into making the robot is done right there in Dennis’ classroom. But it’s not just about creating the best battle machine: Dennis explains that his students are “Straight A’s and not straight A kids, but they all participate. They’re all going above and beyond, bringing something to the team, some energy.”
In the process they learn how to use metalworking equipment, computer design programs, utilize engineering skills and even get experience in writing and public speaking, because they have to document everything and present their work at each competition. The class has two teams, which work during school time and as an afterschool club.
Senior Eliza Sopka heads one of the two teams. “I began in my freshman year and was hooked,” she says. She likes the competition, explaining that they meet local schools in the arena, like Plum, South Park and West Mifflin. “It’s a friendly competition to see who builds the best robot and has the best binder” containing all the documentation of the building process. “We learn teamwork, hard work, compile data and paperwork,” Eliza adds, “and we gain some real world experience.”
That’s one plus: another, according to Dennis, is the culture in the class. “I see a big improvement with the students. They’re taking leadership. I step back and have the students learning the wiring, how to run the machines in the shop, and I see them learn and teach each other. It’s a big step because now it’s not that they sit in a classroom and get lectured to all the time. It’s hands on, and the rest of the world is hands on. They face challenges and they find ways to overcome them. Every robot is a little bit different.”
Clairton develops winners – and not just on the football field. The robotics team has fielded winners nearly every year since Dennis brought the program to the school. In the second and third years of the program, the Clairton teams went to the local competition held at California University and won such awards as “king of the ring,” coolest robot, sportsmanship and then Grand Champion.
In the process of winning those awards, the team gets judged on everything, including the documentation of the process. “So when I say it’s a smart sport, they have to hit on every one of those aspects and be at the top on everyone to win Grand Champion,” Dennis observes.
Last year, because the team won “Grand Champion,” they were given the opportunity to go to the national competition held in Indiana. But because Clairton is one of the region’s smallest and poorest school districts, money just wasn’t available for little things like parts and big things like money to take the winning team to the nationals. Though Dennis was able to find sponsors, including local companies like Ace Wire Spring & Form and Vangura Tool Co., it just wasn’t enough. Dennis and the school administration put out the call to the community – and their story was picked up by the local media. The team needed $4,000 to attend the nationals; in just a few days, the public responded to their story and sent in nearly $60,000 in donations.
The kids got to go to the competition, and with the money that was left over, we were able to purchase more supplies for the program. We’re hoping to go back this year,” Dennis says, explaining that later this month his class takes their two “battle bots” to the Cal U. competition.
And, he proudly notes, his robotics team is the only Clairton team that participates in national competition, in this “smart sport.”
Mural project at South Allegheny - Big draw for students, families
Students, teachers, administrators, parents – all got to participate in a special project at South Allegheny Elementary School this year. Under the guidance of Art Teacher Gail Ungar, the school undertook a unique project: making a mural. The Pittsburgh Center for the Arts' Artist in Residence Program sent the school ceramic and mosaic artist Laura Jean McLaughlin, “who worked with us both during the school day and with an afterschool program, ‘Water, Art & Us,’” according to Gail.
“Water, Art and Us incorporated STEAM and had the involvement of six teachers bringing expertise in art, technology, science, reading, and writing,” she continues. Twenty-six students participated in field trips from RiverQuest, the Pittsburgh Zoo, and the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. They read and discussed the book, “Flush,” by Carl Hiaasen, and their experiences “informed the drawings and ideas for our mural which Laura Jean compiled to create our design,” Gail continues.
“The whole South Allegheny community participated in making our mosaic, during the school day and during evening mosaic making nights throughout the school year. Our mosaic is made from clay pieces we made and fired at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, along with ceramic tile, stone, and stained glass donated by families from the South Allegheny greater community,” Gail explains.
The mosaic consists of 15 panels and when hung in the main hallway of the elementary school building will be about 7 1/2 feet tall and 15 feet wide. “We plan on having a celebration and opening the evening of September 3rd,” says Gail.
The mural project was funded by South Allegheny School District, The Consortium for Public Education, Pennsylvania State Education Association, Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.
“The community support was phenomenal -- so much so, that we already have funding for another mural project to begin in the fall,” she concludes.
Media Partnership Focuses on Learning Innovation
WQED Multimedia and our media partners, 90.5 WESA, Pittsburgh Magazine and NEXTpittsburgh have been focusing on Learning Innovation for the past months, and have put the media spotlight on everything from innovations in Early Childhood learning to computer science, STEAM and robotics.
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.
The Remake Learning Digital Corps have been meeting all over the area, connecting digital learning experts with afterschool program providers. Here a mentor works with a youngster in Carrick. The hope is to activate digital literacies among youth.
Two Homewood youngsters are “learning the digital landscape” through the Remake Learning Digital Corps.
FlipCon14 was held last month in Mars, bringing together hundreds of educators for the 7th Annual Flipped Conference. Flipped learning typically has students watch lectures at home and use class time to work with teachers with more personalized interaction. One of the “gurus” of the Flipped Learning movement, Aaron Sams, right, discusses flipping. Norton Gusky photo.
Flipping educators’ teaching methods are these practitioners of “Flipped Learning.” They were also featured speakers at the recent FlipCon14, held in Mars. Photo by Norton Gusky.
Students at Propel Homestead recently unveiled their Garden Project. These students planted and maintained gardens, with help from Grow Pittsburgh.
Kids get their hands dirty – and have fun “making” at assemble in Garfield.
Students at Manchester Academic Charter School enjoyed an end of the school year carnival, with some family members and friends helping out. Photo by Norton Gusky.
Young filmmakers learn to work with “green screens” to create movie magic, at Pittsburgh Filmmakers’ Youth Media camps. Students direct, perform and edit their an original production.
Spread The News
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