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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.”

Clairton City School District
Bots IQ

Local Educator Helping Us Compete For Federal Dollars

Early Childhood programs in Pennsylvania – and Pittsburgh -- may be getting a big boost if Michelle Figlar has a say. Michelle, executive director of the Pittsburgh Association on the Education of Young Children (PAEYC), is sitting on a 20-member blue-ribbon panel tasked by Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto with submitting a proposal for a Preschool Development Grant from the Federal Government.

In August, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited Pittsburgh; while here Duncan announced that $250 million in federal dollars would be up for grabs among the 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Pennsylvania can qualify for up to $20 million, but has to get an application in by mid-October. Michelle is helping to write the grant that may ultimately bring a chunk of that $20 million here.

This Pre-School Expansion Grant will be used to create a strategy to serve more four-year-olds in Pennsylvania, explains Michelle. “It’s a great idea, and then Pennsylvania can choose two or more communities” to receive the grant money. Pittsburgh could be one of those beneficiaries, using some of that $20 million “to best meet the needs of children.” If we get some monies, it will be used to increase professional development for teachers, help families gain access to programs that are targeted to four-year-olds, help provide transportation to institutions and achieve high quality programs.

The grants are aimed at helping low to moderate income families, those 200% under the poverty line and giving those families and children access to quality pre-school programs. But it would also free up monies to be used to improve existing early childhood programs – and create new ones.

“It would help four-year-olds in the city of Pittsburgh – that’s a big piece of the puzzle,” Michelle says, who will be heading up the Policy Committee on the Mayor’s panel. “And it will help us with the overall strategic plan for children.”

Arne Duncan’s recent visit made an impression on local teachers and educators. It showed that “our city and new mayor are really committed to young children and families who live in the city,” Michelle says.

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.

Look for new stories, videos and content every month, on WQED-TV, iQ Kids Radio, and on WQED Interactive, and visit our partners at WESA, Pittsburgh Magazine and NEXTpittsburgh.

Photos



Celebrating the end of another Summer of Learning were visitors to The Sprout Fund’s Pittsburgh Maker Party, held at the Society of Contemporary Craft. (Photo by Ben Filio, courtesy, The Sprout Fund.)



Educators at the South Fayette Summer Learning Institute joined South Fayette Township School District teachers to learn about computational thinking, game design and more. (Photo by Norton Gusky.)



In July, 32 recent high school graduates created “Green Compass” radio features while serving as Heinz Endowments summer interns. The features focused on community issues. SLB Radio provided training and coaching. (Photo courtesy SLB Radio.)



Learning new digital skills with help from mentors from the Remake Learning Digital Corps was this teen.



Getting creative at the recent Second Annual Maker Party, thrown by The Sprout Fund. (Photo by Ben Filio, courtesy, Sprout Fund.)



Heinz Endowments summer interns created radio features on issues ranging from life in public housing to the plight of the honey bee. Training for the “Green Compass” program was provided by SLB Radio. (Photo courtesy, SLB Radio.)



High school students in Pittsburgh Filmmakers’ Youth Media Program summer camps experienced an “immersion” into filmmaking.



Exploring the heavens were these kids at the Outerspace Maker Party at Assemble.



Propel Schools are the first schools in the Pittsburgh area to use Playworks, an organization dedicated to revamping the concept of recess in schools. Here some teachers learn to “play.”

Spread The News

Do you have a story of learning innovation? A program, teacher or parent who is making a difference? Tell us about it and we’ll share it on our Learning Innovation webpage. Submit stories and videos to learning@wqed.org!

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