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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.”

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