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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

The Wonder of Learning Opens at The Convention Center

How do children think? How do they learn? How can educators tap into a child’s personal interests to spark creativity and learning? “The Wonder of Learning: The Hundred Languages of Children” explores this in a comprehensive and exciting exhibit on display at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center now through November. It opened last month with a reception attended by local leaders and educators.

The Wonder of Learning showcases the Reggio Emilia Approach, which evolved in the city of Reggio Emilia, Italy, after World War II. It allows children to learn by following their personal interests, using collaboration and relationship based learning. The exhibit showcases how children react to materials, writing, nature, ideas and more from their earliest years on.

This exhibit has traveled to 31 countries, including 40 cities in the US. It includes stations with media, objects, videos, the children’s work, and “The Atelier of Light,” an interactive exhibit for children ages 5-8 which allows visitors to experiment with different aspects of light.

Local hosts for the exhibit are The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children (PAEYC), with Carolyn Linder and Sue Polojac leading a steering committee that included top local educators. The exhibit is free and open to the public Wednesday through Friday from 1 to 7 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. For information: www.pittsburghwol.org

Photos



Dr. Edwina Kinchington from Pittsburgh Science & Technology Academy (SciTech) recently won the 2015 Pennsylvania Outstanding Biology Teacher Award from The National Association of Biology Teachers.



Young learners experiment with casting chocolate in molds in an activity at Allegheny Traditional Academy presented by Assemble.



A recent Maker Education Meet-Up presented by The Sprout Fund was held at CMU’s Hunt Library. Hosts were IDeAte, the Integrative Design, Arts and Technology Network at CMU.



Emily Simmons animates upcoming MAKER dates during a meeting at CMU’s Hunt Library, hosted by IDeAte and the Sprout Fund. Educators learned about CMU’s efforts in physical computing, learning and making.



Superheroes love science, technology, art and math, and learn all about these “powers” during Assemble’s Summer Camp session, Superheroes Assemble!



Some lucky kids became “Urban Eco Explorers” this summer at Assemble’s camp session that explored the environment, science, ecology and renewable energy.



Deadline is still open for Makers to participate in Maker Faire Pittsburgh, set for October 10 and 11 on the NorthSide. Makerfairepittsburgh.com/makers.



TechShop Director of Education Louise Larson, left, takes a turn at making buttons at the TechShop’s recent “21+Night.”



TechShop recently held a “21+Night,” with proceeds benefiting Big Brothers and Big Sisters. Hundreds attended and spent the night “Making” and acquainting themselves with the facility.



Anthony Klimko of Turtle Creek has been working as an intern at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit through the Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board. He intends to major in Early Childhood Education with a minor in Special Education.

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