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Rashkis Third Grade Students Explore Robotics After School

Claire Nelson, third grade teacher at Rashkis Elementary School (RES), is becoming an enthusiastic learner in the field of robotics, and she’s sharing her excitement with the majority of third grade students in a new after school club. “My son is on a high school robotics team,” she said last spring, after receiving Donors Choose funding for an initial set of Spheros. “I have seen what a difference robotics and coding have made to him. Even though robotics and coding are out of my comfort zone, I wanted to challenge myself to integrate it into my classroom instruction.” This year, she chose to open instruction and access beyond her own students, so she now leads the club on Monday and Tuesday afternoons. Of the 80 third grade students at RES, 50 participate in the four session series.

two third grade Rashkis students programming On a recent Tuesday, the children were spread across the carpet in Nelson’s classroom, working in pairs, quietly and with impressive focus. They had, after all, been in school for a full instructional day, and yet they barely looked up from their shared task. The lesson required each pair to build an earthquake simulator and three structures to test the magnitude each structure could withstand, using Lego WeDo 2.0. As children tested each building and increased the “earthquake” magnitude, they watched expectantly for the inevitable collapse. When buildings passed 5.0 or 6.0 and still stood, several children expressed delight and amazement at their durable constructions.

When the students had arrived in the classroom at 2:45, Nelson provided a brief lesson on the whiteboard, before asking them to “turn and talk” about their prior knowledge of earthquakes. Some of the children knew a great deal about earthquakes and others knew very little. “We talked about the Ring of Fire,” Nelson said, “and we discussed how the U.S. mainly has earthquakes on the West Coast.” They also talked about the ways that architects and engineers work to design more earthquake-proof structures.

The previous session allowed the students to build helicopters from the Lego WeDo sets, and then they programmed them to move up and down a string as drop or rescue devices. They discussed ways that weather hazards can impact animals and people. Relocate an endangered animal, drop materials to help people or drop water to fight a fire were all tasks the helicopters could be programmed to perform. As they discussed the various reasons for drop or rescue missions, Nelson integrated information about the California wildfires and North Carolina hurricanes and flooding.

For the final of the four sessions, students will build a simple prosthetic hand, and learn how doctors and scientists use robots to help people who need assistive devices. They’ll discuss how robotics can improve the lives of people with disabilities, and how advanced devices can replicate almost all of the movements of a human hand. The lesson will show them how to program the hands to grab, lift and place objects.

East volunteer at Rashkis When the club first met in early January, a couple of volunteers from the Robotics Club at East Chapel Hill High came out to RES to work with the third grade students. However, this is “build season” for robotics teams as they prepare for regional and national competitions, so the East volunteers have not been able to attend every club session, but they made a strong impression on many of the children they worked with, perhaps future robotics team members themselves!

The Public School Foundation provided funding for the WeDo 2.0 sets for Nelson’s robotics instruction and fun with third grade students.