This Month’s Learning Innovation: Ellis Robotics Builds Leaders
It looks like the students are playing– painstakingly they piece Lego blocks together, making trees, planes, things that look like tractors, towers and cranes. Suddenly the creations come to life, moving, pushing, carrying loads. What are they doing?
These girls are preparing for the First Lego League robotics competition out of Carnegie Mellon University, and they are The Ellis School’s Middle School Team comprising fifth through eighth graders. They are an elite group of students – “the STEAM powered girls” (STEAM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Awesomeness and Math), and what looks like play is actually the team trying to solve a very serious issue using robotics.
They are practicing their “missions” for the 2013-14 First Lego League Competition called Nature’s Fury, according to Dr. Lisa Abel-Palmieri, Ellis’ director of technology and innovation and a team mentor along with Dr. Bambi Brewer, engineering & robotics instructor and Josh Ray, math teacher. The girls were given the task to create robots that would respond to natural disasters; they based their creations on responding to the terrible wildfire that took the lives of 19 Arizona firefighters last year. The girls created the FCD – Fire Communication Device, using robotics to find a method for firefighters in danger to keep abreast of the changing conditions.
It’s just one way of engaging the girls in robotics, an important part of the curriculum at Ellis. “We start exposing Ellis girls to robotics in our Lower School, where they work with the modular robotics Cubelets program. We move into using the Lego NXT robots in the Middle School as part of the First Lego League, but also offer some electives,” Dr. Abel-Palmieri explains. “We also use Arts and Bots Hummingbird kit before students move on to the High School where students have the opportunity to participate in the First Robotics Competition robotics team.”
Why the emphasis on robotics? Dr. Abel-Palmieri feels strongly: “It’s really important that girls learn about robotics especially because they’re underrepresented in these fields, not only robotics but engineering in general. So we engage the girls, especially at a very young age, in technical fields like engineering and robotics and when they can see that they’re solving a problem or it’s tied to some type of community issue that they’re working on – then they know that they are programming and building this robot to help others.”
Most of the teams in the First Lego League Competition are heavily male dominated – lots of boys. Ellis’ team is all girls – and they are proud of that. “Women are just as powerful and just as smart as boys,” said one student. “It’s about helping ourselves to learn things,” added another. “It feels good to be on an all girls’ team because boys aren’t the only ones that can do this.”
Legos are used for these creations for several reasons: They are affordable for a school; they’re non-threatening for the students, and because they’re fun. “So now they’re taking these Legos and extending them even further to do robotics and programming,” explains Dr. Abel-Palmieri. They plug their creations into the computer and they program them to perform tasks. They either use the software that comes with Lego Mindstorms or program in robotics for students who are more advanced.
“I think being part of the First Lego League Team and exposing them to robotics and engineering is going to impact their lives in a number of different ways,” Dr. Abel-Palmieri says. “First of all, they’re going to know that they as a girl can be an engineer, or a scientist or roboticist as well as a boy or anybody else. And so it makes it something that they can identify with. They can also see role models in other women who are in technical fields through events – our team met Firewoman Lisa Epps from the Pittsburgh Fire Department,” who came for the girls’ presentation of their communications device before the entire school.
“She gave us feedback about whether our solution was feasible or if it was just completely made up,” said one FLL Team member. “She said it was viable, that we could do it. We also found out how she became a firefighter and the struggles she faced. She was discriminated against because she’s a woman.”
“By getting out there and presenting their ideas it builds leadership skills and presentation skills,” says Dr. Abel-Palmieri. “It’s so important today to be able to be a presenter and a collaborator. And it’s a learning innovation because it includes science and math, but also research and writing and communicating and connecting with people out in the community, and coming together as a team to solve a challenge.
“There’s even an arts aspect because they design posters and create a video about their project,” she continues. “So it really brings together students with different strengths, connects them to the community and they solve a challenge that is real in the world they live in today.”
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org!
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.