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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.”

To Learn More:
theellisschool.org
firstlegoleague.org

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.

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



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.

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