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.”
Educators Dive Into Deeper Learning at TRETC
Over 400 educators met to discuss the Deeper Learning movement at the recent Three Rivers Educational Technology Conference, “Diving In To Deeper Learning,” held in Mars, PA. Over two days they heard from top ed-tech innovators, including Tom Vander Ark, well known author and CEO of Getting Smart, an education advocacy firm, as well as noted area educators.
Vander Ark is also a partner in an educational venture capital firm that invests in EdTech startups, was president of the X Prize Foundation, and first executive director of education for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Other featured speakers included Daniel Harrold, an English teacher and Instructional Technology Specialist currently teaching junior and senior English at Baldwin High School, located in the Baldwin-Whitehall School District; Jana Baxter, Instructional Media Services Coordinator for the Allegheny Intermediate Unit in Homestead, PA, and Zee Ann Poerio, K-8 Computer teacher and advisor for the Student Technology Team at St. Louise de Marillac Catholic School in Pittsburgh.
Breakout sessions were led by area educators on everything from building 21st Century skills in a one to one teaching environment and “Teaching Science with Minecraft” to Blogging as Reflection/Portfolio. In one classroom teachers were learning to create “Squishy” circuits to teach basic electricity to pre-schoolers; in another, educators played well-known card games and created completely new ones.
TRETC is the premier K-16 educational technology conference in Western Pennsylvania. It is a joint conference run by the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, local education leaders and the Pittsburgh Technology Council.
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Emmai Alaquiva, noted area educator, emceed the recent Pittsburgh Learning Pathways Summit, hosted by the Digital Badge Lab at The Sprout Fund. The program explored digital badges and included opportunities to explore out-of-school learning experiences.
Liz Whitewolf, a robotics educator and project manager at Propel Braddock Hills High School, explains the nuances of digital badges at the recent Pittsburgh Learning Pathways Summit.
math iQ is using innovative approaches to teach math to kids in grades preK-3, with a focus on kids in low-income areas. It is a project of iQ: smartmedia, the educational initiative of WQED Multimedia.
A recent edcampPGH featured discussions and hands-on sessions for local educators. Here’s the schedule from a recent edCamp, held at Propel Braddock Hills High School. (Norton Gusky photo.)
In a special program aimed at female students, the Elizabeth Forward Middle School girls are working with the Arts and Bots program from the Create Lab at CMU. All sixth and seventh graders learn robotics at EFMS’s Dream Factory.
Dr. Lisa Palmieri from The Ellis School shares ideas with other educators at an edTech PGH meet-up.
Springdale Senior High School 10th graders Matt Kern, left, and Cameron Pribulsky flank Sue Mellon, gifted support coordinator for the Allegheny Valley School District. Sue developed a unique program that combines robotics and poetry, and Matt and Cameron helped produce the prototype.
Seneca Valley High School students recently participated in an engineering/robotics challenge sponsored by Penn State Electro-Optics Center. SV had two air and sea teams and one land team; this is the sea team creation.
LaKiesha George, principal of Propel Hazelwood, stands next to the mobile sculpture created by The Mobile Sculpture Workshop and students from Propel Hazelwood. This beautiful piece of public art was created by teen apprentices who worked with the 12-week Mobile Sculpture Workshop program.
Educators learn to make Squishy Circuits at the recently held Three Rivers Educational Technology Conference. The circuits teach basic electricity to the youngest students.