Middle school students learn engineering through robotics, shop

Exposing students to STEM earlier in school career a district priority

Natalie Rouse (left) and Ana Agapitova design a toll booth with an arm that lifts and lowers Jan. 10.

Natalie Rouse (left) and Ana Agapitova design a toll booth with an arm that lifts and lowers Jan. 10. Photo By Peter Zuzga

Jan. 22, 2014

As soon as the 8 a.m. buzzer sounded, students in one eighth-grade class got to work building robots.

They retrieved their creations, opened their laptops and began to make alterations using gears, screws and wires.

Some students took two miniaturized drag-racing cars out to the hallway and launched them past a row of lockers.

Bret Fredrickson, applied technology and engineering teacher at Pilgrim Park Middle School, walked proudly through the classroom's computer lab, and, for the most part, remained silent.

The eighth-grade class Engineering, Robotics and Automation is largely self-taught, he said.

"There's a list of problems (for the class), and the students are able to choose which ones to solve," he said. "I give them a packet of resources and websites to help them, but they get to design them (the robots) and create them. … It allows the kids to be really creative."

Natalie Rouse and Ana Agapitova, both 13, consulted their laptop as they carefully wired their latest creation: a miniature toll booth with a bar that lifts and drops when switches are pressed.

"It's nice having the freedom to choose which projects you do, and it being a hands-on class," Rouse said. "If (Fredrickson) was up front giving a lecture, I think it'd be harder to understand."

Worth the cost

The eighth-grade robotics class, and its seventh-grade predecessor Engineering, Design and Modeling, are components of Project Lead the Way's Gateway to Technology, a middle school engineering program that is part of the STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering and Math — curriculum.

The courses were first offered in the 2013-14 school year, shortly after the Elmbrook Education Foundation donated money to the program.

"We have a really strong engineering program at our high schools and we wanted to find a way to bring that engineering to the middle schools," said Curt Mould, director of curriculum and instruction for the Elmbrook School District.

But implementing the program wasn't cheap.

The EEF contributed $67,000 in the spring of 2013 to jump-start the program and committed to raising an additional $33,000 within the next year for a grand total of $100,000.

The money helped to begin the GTT courses for both Pilgrim Park and Wisconsin Hills middle schools.

Gateway to Technology requires expensive materials, such as laptops and "robot kits," as well as training for the instructors.

"It's an expensive program to get off the ground … and never would have happened it if weren't for the EEF's donation," Fredrickson said.

But the goal, he said, is to introduce students to engineering before high school.

"The world has changed, and technology has evolved so fast that schools need to adapt in order to teach skills that kids will need (in the future)," Fredrickson said. "Factories nowadays are so high-tech … and (GTT) is more like real life for them."

Although students enjoy the creative aspect of building robots, the importance of such skills is not lost on them.

"I really like this," said Rouse as she tinkered with her toll booth. "It helps to know all of this for if you want to go into college for engineering. … And it's also fun to watch something you make come to life."

Expanding the Gateway

While the GTT program offered the materials to create two-dimensional blueprints for mechanized projects, the district wanted to grant students the opportunity to physically construct them as well.

That's where the wood shop comes in.

The seventh-grade engineering course teaches students to design an object, such as a lamp, but that's where the project would typically end under the traditional GTT curriculum, Fredrickson said.

"Gateway to Technology is supposed to be a computerized robotics course and doesn't require students to produce much. But we wanted them to build their plans into a working 3-D prototype … so we turned the course into a hybrid of GTT technology and wood shop skills," he said.

"And there are a lot of kids that like the technology part and a lot of kids that like the building part, so they're all happy."

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