The Human Side of Robotics Education

The Human Side of Robotics Education

Robotics education has emerged as one highly visible indicator of the growing student interest in STEM programming in the schoolhouses of Crown Point, Indiana. Currently, Crown Point High School hosts six VEX Robotic teams made up of 38 students who regularly compete at the state, regional and national/world level.

Robotics education has emerged as one highly visible indicator of the growing student interest in STEM programming in the schoolhouses of Crown Point, Indiana. Currently, Crown Point High School hosts six VEX Robotic teams made up of 38 students who regularly compete at the state, regional and national/world level. Also, the fever for robotics has captured the attention of elementary students at Douglas MacArthur Elementary School where 22 students participate in the fledgling but flourishing program.

Starting the Fire

Growing from a small group of students in 2009, the interest in robotics is fueled by the leadership of Mr. Mark Querry, the teams’ instructor and coach. Querry has built a championship VEX Robotics program that focuses on and develops STEM thinking and intentionally grows human beings who are driven problem-solvers, college-and career-ready team players, and dynamic future leaders.

At Crown Point High School, the VEX Robotics Design System has proven to be a rigorous platform for engaging students to apply STEM learning in and out of the classroom. Courses in Beginning and Advanced Robotics are now part of the CPHS Industrial Technology curriculum. According to Querry, the courses add another dimension for students that “reinforces STEM learning and the VEX Robotics program.” Querry can customize projects to meet the varying capacities and interests of different groups of students from beginners to experts to freshman to seniors. Besides the obvious benefits of applied math, physics, engineering principles and teamwork, Querry believes, “Robotics helps develop the skill of working together to solve a problem and complete a project. It shows that failure can lead to success if persevered.”

Each year immediately following the Robotics World Tournament in April, the coaches and students learn of the new “game” for the coming year. The team sets to work to design the new robots, purchase game elements, plan together in summer workshops to formulate their competition strategies and plot their season.  As school begins in August, teams are reorganized and assigned specific work. At this point, the team practices two times or more weekly throughout the entire school year to prepare for the 10 state-qualifying tournaments in which they will compete. Since the team has garnered dozens of awards around the state (including four Excellence Awards—the top award given at the state level) and has been named World Qualifiers on sixconsecutive occasions, Querry knows that “to be competitive, the team must go continually all year.” 

The effect on Querry's students is multi-layered: providing opportunities to students who might not have “fit” elsewhere; adding greater value to the “paper” of academic achievement with hands-on problem solving; developing strong project completion traits which carry over into all content areas; opening up opportnities for early entrance into college STEM related programs; creating college and career pathways that often start with internships in technical engineering, manufacturing, mechanics, and more.

Principal Chip Pettit believes, “Offering competition teams in both VEX and FIRST Robotics has provided a fantastic opportunity for students to explore STEM initiatives. The pressure that’s inherent in competition raises the stakes for students.  In addition, the work ethic, teamwork and communication skills that are developed as part of being involved in competitive team activities serve students well as they transition into their college and career fields.”

Despite the challenges of funding and managing multiple teams, Querry has found the formula for success by cultivating school and community partnerships. The team enjoys extensive parent, business and district support and is directly influencing the lives of younger students in the district.

Fanning the Flames

Inspired by the success of the VEX Robotics program at CPHS and by the needs of their elementary students, Ms. Alycia Graczyk, fifth grade teacher, and Mrs. Ruth Jostes, second grade teacher, created an elementary robotics program twp years ago at MacArthur Elementary School. MacArthur, an Indiana 4-Star School and a National Blue Ribbon School, is a Title 1 building with the highest free/reduced lunch percentage in the Crown Point Community School Corporation at 46 percent. Looking to help their students get a head start in the world of STEM, the two teachers recruited and established teams using the VEXIQ Robotics system, a hands-on experience that allows younger students to explore and experiment with robot programming and building. 

Coaches Graczyk and Jostes realized early on that their students, particularly those with less financial means, needed more opportunities to interact with STEM related skills and ideas. Their team members problem-solve together, thus developing a life-skill for future success. The needed determination and perseverance become important markers on the path to college and career readiness. Important to the growth of the program at MacArthur is the addition of more robots, thus keeping the student-to-robot ratio smaller (three to four students per robot). The students create their own robot designs, complete detailed engineering journals, and present STEM research to teammates and coaches. Practice sessions are two times per week after school and one evening practice per month. This leads to competing in various meets at home and around the state. During the first year of the program, the team traveled to one tournament, but this year they have hosted two competitions and traveled to two more. Teams earn awards for effective communication with teammates and judges, displays of teamwork, skill level of the robotics, STEM research projects and engineering techniques. Graczyk knows participating in the team “shows students that with determination and perseverance, each of them can accomplish anything and be successful as they move forward in life and careers.”

The local Crown Point Community Foundation and CPCSC work to support the students in funding their robots and travel, but the most meaningful support comes from partnering with the CPHS students who mentor, instruct, troubleshoot and inspire their young admirers.  The MacArthur team provides some of the first “feeder” engineers, programmers and drivers for the high school team. Principal Marian Buchko states, “Developing a VEX Robotics team is a huge undertaking for coaches, students and parents and requires a significant, meaningful commitment on everyone’s part.” According to the coaches, staff and parent support is invaluable to the team as these influential adults provide guidance through the steps of problem solving, giving just enough support to allow students the “freedom to create solutions to the problems that arise.” 

Fueling the Future

Querry, Graczyk, and Jostes all agree that Robotics is offering opportunities for student engagement in STEM related activities and providing academic accessibility and equity for students of various backgrounds, ages, and interests across the STEM curriculum.  Whether the student is age eight or 18, the study of robotics is increasing the academic and personal capacity of youngsters who are experiencing real possibilities for their futures--futures based on effective communication and teamwork; tenacity and perseverance; and problem solving and project completion undergirded by solid applications of science, engineering, technology, and math skills.

Superintendent  Dr. Teresa Eineman wholeheartedly believes in this robust STEM initiative: “Cooperative learning within our Vex Robotic program is the 'winning,' teaching, and learning strategy of STEM by teacher-coaches Querry, Graczyk, and Jostes. Our 'winning' team record aligns with numerous meta-analyses giving cooperative learning the 'winning' edge over individualistic learning and competitive learning. Please steal our secret to success for STEM student learning!”  

Deb Ciochina

Deb Ciochina is a career teacher and principal who currently serves as the assistant director of curriculum and instruction for Crown Point Community School Corporation in Crown Point, Indiana.  

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