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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

AIU, Leadership Pittsburgh Honor 7 ‘Unboxed’ Teachers

Seven area classroom teachers have been named as “Unboxed Teachers” by The Allegheny Intermediate Unit (AIU) and Leadership Pittsburgh Inc. Nominated by their superintendents, the teachers embody the principles of unboxed learning and consider learning in the broadest sense of the word.

These winners were nominated because they seek new ways to engage their students’ imaginations. Among their teaching methods: gamification, flipped learning, authentic assessing and discovery.

These teachers are changing public education in southwestern Pennsylvania by helping students become the drivers and masters of their own learning, according to Dr. Linda Hippert, executive director of the AIU.

“We know that in the classroom our teachers are making a positive difference in the lives of children. The innovation and creativity is contagious,” she said.

Winners will attend Leadership Pittsburgh Inc.’s Unboxed Edges of Learning Conference at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort Nov. 14-15, an invitation-only event for Pittsburgh’s changemakers from businesses, foundations and academic organizations. Winners will also submit proposals for potential funding and present the results of their learning.

The winners are: Melissa Cwynar of Avonworth School District; Mary Wilson of Elizabeth Forward School District; Tina Raspanti of Mt. Lebanon School District; Karen Kircher of Northgate School District; Alan Welding of Chartiers Valley School District; Veneashea Davis of Woodland Hills School District and Melissa Drake of South Fayette School District.

WQED In Media Consortium to Spotlight Remake Learning

WQED Multimedia and our media partners, 90.5 WESA, Pittsburgh Magazine and NEXTpittsburgh have been focusing on learning innovations for the past year. This year, we’re doing it again, under the banner “Remake Learning.” We will continue to focus on everything from innovations in Early Childhood learning to computer science, STEAM and robotics.

This is the first time we can recall that four media outlets are working together to focus on the wonderful innovations happening in our area. We have it covered – TV, radio, magazine and the web – and will spotlight Pittsburgh educators and community leaders who have helped make this area a flagship in the international movement to “remake learning” and create educational opportunities designed for our times.

Made possible through a grant from the Grable Foundation, Remake Learning focuses on the Pittsburgh region's need to prepare its young people for college and the work force by building on the basics, finding the motivation and connecting students with hands-on learning experiences that develop relevant skills.

Look for new stories, videos and content every month, on WQED-TV, iQ Kids Radio, and on WQED Interactive, and visit our partners at WESA, Pittsburgh Magazine and NEXTpittsburgh.

Spread The News

Do you have a story of learning innovation? A program, teacher or parent who is making a difference? Tell us about it and we'll share it on our Remake Learning webpage. Submit stories and videos to learning@wqed.org!

Photos



At Propel McKeesport, 8th grade science instructor Lori Mascara uses Pasco resources to bring science to life in a revamped STEM focus. Students collect and analyze real-time data with equipment used in universities.



The Remake Learning Digital Corps is helping young people like this Carrick student learn new digital literacy skills like coding, programming and basic robotics.



This summer, students served as interns at The Heinz Endowments. They worked with Saturday Light Brigade Radio to create radio features focusing on community issues as part of the Green Compass program. (SLB Radio photo.)



The Allegheny Intermediate Unit3 recently held its first STEAM showcase, with 25 grant recipients demonstrating their innovations. These East Allegheny School District students spent a year creating a virtual city.



Another AIU3 grant recipient was McKeesport Area School District. They brought a SMALLab to the elementary school, where these students have fun while learning math concepts.



Preparing a group of educators for the taping of the next iQSmartparent – focusing on digital badges -- is WQED’s Director of Education Jennifer Stancil, WQED's Executive Director of Educational Partnerships.



Environmental Charter Schools at Frick Park brings these artists from Assemble to the school each week to work on STEAM art projects.



Environmental Charter Schools has a special room where even the teachers get to explore – The Thinking Lab. These two educators are trying out new techniques to use in the classroom.

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