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.”
Mural project at South Allegheny - Big draw for students, families
Students, teachers, administrators, parents – all got to participate in a special project at South Allegheny Elementary School this year. Under the guidance of Art Teacher Gail Ungar, the school undertook a unique project: making a mural. The Pittsburgh Center for the Arts' Artist in Residence Program sent the school ceramic and mosaic artist Laura Jean McLaughlin, “who worked with us both during the school day and with an afterschool program, ‘Water, Art & Us,’” according to Gail.
“Water, Art and Us incorporated STEAM and had the involvement of six teachers bringing expertise in art, technology, science, reading, and writing,” she continues. Twenty-six students participated in field trips from RiverQuest, the Pittsburgh Zoo, and the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. They read and discussed the book, “Flush,” by Carl Hiaasen, and their experiences “informed the drawings and ideas for our mural which Laura Jean compiled to create our design,” Gail continues.
“The whole South Allegheny community participated in making our mosaic, during the school day and during evening mosaic making nights throughout the school year. Our mosaic is made from clay pieces we made and fired at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, along with ceramic tile, stone, and stained glass donated by families from the South Allegheny greater community,” Gail explains.
The mosaic consists of 15 panels and when hung in the main hallway of the elementary school building will be about 7 1/2 feet tall and 15 feet wide. “We plan on having a celebration and opening the evening of September 3rd,” says Gail.
The mural project was funded by South Allegheny School District, The Consortium for Public Education, Pennsylvania State Education Association, Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.
“The community support was phenomenal -- so much so, that we already have funding for another mural project to begin in the fall,” she concludes.
Media Partnership Focuses on Learning Innovation
WQED Multimedia and our media partners, 90.5 WESA, Pittsburgh Magazine and NEXTpittsburgh have been focusing on Learning Innovation for the past months, and have put the media spotlight on everything from innovations in Early Childhood learning to computer science, STEAM and robotics.
The four media outlets, TV, radio, magazine and online magazine, are working together to focus on Pittsburgh leadership in the international movement to “remake learning” and create educational opportunities designed for our times.
Made possible through a grant from the Grable Foundation, Learning Innovation focuses on the Pittsburgh region's need to prepare its young people for college and the work force by building on the basics and connecting students with hands-on learning experiences that develop relevant skills.
The Remake Learning Digital Corps have been meeting all over the area, connecting digital learning experts with afterschool program providers. Here a mentor works with a youngster in Carrick. The hope is to activate digital literacies among youth.
Two Homewood youngsters are “learning the digital landscape” through the Remake Learning Digital Corps.
FlipCon14 was held last month in Mars, bringing together hundreds of educators for the 7th Annual Flipped Conference. Flipped learning typically has students watch lectures at home and use class time to work with teachers with more personalized interaction. One of the “gurus” of the Flipped Learning movement, Aaron Sams, right, discusses flipping. Norton Gusky photo.
Flipping educators’ teaching methods are these practitioners of “Flipped Learning.” They were also featured speakers at the recent FlipCon14, held in Mars. Photo by Norton Gusky.
Students at Propel Homestead recently unveiled their Garden Project. These students planted and maintained gardens, with help from Grow Pittsburgh.
Kids get their hands dirty – and have fun “making” at assemble in Garfield.
Students at Manchester Academic Charter School enjoyed an end of the school year carnival, with some family members and friends helping out. Photo by Norton Gusky.
Young filmmakers learn to work with “green screens” to create movie magic, at Pittsburgh Filmmakers’ Youth Media camps. Students direct, perform and edit their an original production.
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 Learning Innovation webpage. Submit stories and videos to firstname.lastname@example.org!