By Eve A. Baker
Robotics may be the most common extracurricular activity in local schools. “Every Prince William County school
has at least one robotics program,” said Denyse Carroll, K-12 STEM Education Coordinator for SPARK, the Education Foundation for Prince William County Public Schools (PWCS). In the 2014/2015 school year alone, more than 2,000 area students got experience building, programming and controlling robotic creations.
The programs are made possible by a wide array of businesses and organizations, including SySTEMic Solutions, an outreach program based out of Northern Virginia Community College. According to Bryce Lenon, the public relations and marketing director for SySTEMic Solutions, the organization is “a public/private partnership, a collaboration between schools, private organizations and businesses” with the goal of getting young people involved and interested in STEM classes and careers.
Area tech firms, such as Lockheed Martin and Micron Technology, provide funding as well as employees who serve as coaches and mentors.
There are seven different robotics platforms that the schools use. According to Carroll, the First Lego League is the platform with which most elementary school students get started. Fourth and fifth grade students are eligible to participate, building a Lego robot kit and programming it themselves.
A smaller number of elementary schools and some middle schools use the VEX IQ platform, which involves a combination of programming and remote control technology. Middle and high school programs commonly use VEX, another platform which involves “metal parts, sensors, and pneumatics,” said Carroll.
With all three platforms, students build a robot that they use throughout the school year to participate in competitions, programming or operating it to perform various tasks, such as stacking plastic blocks in groups by color.
With the SeaPerch program, students build an underwater, remotely operated vehicle and use it to complete tasks in a pool. Teams face real-world challenges, like capping a runaway underwater oil well. Robotics students also participate in the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) Tech Challenge and FIRST Robotics Competition.
In perhaps the most exciting and far-reaching program, Zero Robotics, Prince William students made it to the championship, where they communicated directly with the International Space Station as astronauts put their student-programmed satellites through their paces in the orbiting lab.
The robotics activities and competitions “get students excited about STEM with hands-on learning. They are learning without even knowing it,” said Carroll.
Students from the robotics club at Triangle Elementary School recently competed on the world stage at the 2015 VEX IQ Challenge Elementary School world championship in Louisville, Ky., said Ryan Osweiler, the school’s robotics coach. A team of five took 40th place out of 90 international teams. They were singled out with the Amaze Award, “for having a well-built robot while having a good strategy and cooperating as a team,” said team member Layla, age 11.
To learn more, visit www.pwcs.edu.
Journalist Eve Baker is a retired U.S. Marine. She does editorial consulting for the military community and serves in the Marine Corps Reserve. She can be reached at [email protected]