March 20, 2008

Getting Leg Up With Robots

several schools, clubs use sophisticated devices as teaching tools

Several Tucson-area schools are relying on robots to help teach students math and science principles, computer skills, engineering, teamwork and leadership.

Schools with robotics teams have transformed the after-school activity into a part of the school's curriculum by creating science and computer elective classes that teach robotics, while other schools have integrated robotics into regular science classes.

The Vail, Catalina Foothills, and Sahuarita Unified school districts have schools that teach robotics classes and teams that build robots for competitions.

Flowing Wells High School has a robotics club but offers no elective classes.

Sonoran Science Academy was one of the first schools in Tucson to create a robotics team and hosts a yearly "robolympics," said Principal Ercan Aydogdu.

Most schools with robotics programs have labs with power tools, machines and computers entirely devoted to robotics.

Teachers, administrators and students say robotics teaches a variety of interdisciplinary skills that prepares students for college and, eventually, the real world.

Most high schools don't adequately prepare students for careers in engineering and other industries, said Enrique Santa Cruz, an industrial-technology teacher and robotics coach at Sahuarita High School.

Robotics programs teach students how to apply their classroom lessons to a real-world problem, Santa Cruz said.

"Robotics brings that experience to them," he said.

Encompasses variety of skills

Robotics programs are designed to teach a variety of math and science skills, ranging from algebra and geometry to trigonometry and physics.

Students also learn how to use computer-programming language to give commands to the robots.

Younger students are typically introduced to robotics principles through Lego kits, while older students move on to building their own robots using computer-aided drafting technology and power tools.

Most projects, however, emphasize the same objective: problem- solving.

"The problems FIRST Lego League does all relate to real-world problems, so students are applying what they do to solve real-world problems," said Sunrise Drive Elementary School teacher Charlotte Ackerman.

Ackerman started the district's Lego robotics team seven years ago with a group of gifted fifth-graders at Sunrise Drive, she said.

The robotics team competes each fall in the FIRST Lego League, which is sponsored by an organization that promotes regional, national and international competitions.

FIRST is an acronym for "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology."

Ackerman also teaches an after-school class to beginners through the district's Community Schools program.

Ackerman's after-school students are learning how to program the robots to do certain tasks such as navigate obstacles and pick up objects, she said.

The students use a basic robot built with a light sensor, touch sensor, motors - and Legos.

Other skills students learn include "working independently and in teams, persistence in problem-solving, logical thinking and becoming familiar with technologies," she said.

Some of her students have learned how to apply their math skills to building the robots.

"You need to learn a lot of math. You need to learn a lot of degrees and decimals," said Priya Hebbar, 10, a fifth-grader at Sunrise Drive. "You also need to use logical reasoning."

Priya learned how to use a computer program to give the robot commands, she said.

Robotics programs for older students usually combine computer- programming and design skills with shop skills such as welding, machining and working with power tools.

Vail High School junior Kevin Marcus, 16, has used all these skills and some classroom skills as well, he said.

"The guys did a bunch of math equations to try to figure out how long the arms had to be," said Marcus, referring to a robot his team is building for an upcoming FIRST Robotics regional competition.

"I also learned some coding for the robot, which tells the robot what to do," he said.

Focus on programming

Some schools have created robotics classes as a way to teach science, computer and engineering principles.

Sonoran Science Academy offers a robotics class that focuses on the programming aspect of robotics, said physics and technology teacher Bill Bennett.

The class is offered as a computers elective at the school, Bennett said.

Bennett teaches the class and coaches the school's robotics team.

Even though the class focuses on computers, Bennett still described it as a "multidisciplinary class where you do things for a purpose."

Some of those things include structural design, electronics, sensors and learning when to use materials such as plastic, metal and aluminum, he said.

The school's robotics lab is equipped with a milling machine, which is used for making metal parts, and a welding machine.

"What they do in robotics class is design a mechanism and decide 'what part do I need?'" he said.

The course serves students who want to learn robotics but don't want to work the long hours required by the school's robotics team, he said.

"They can take one course and get a taste of all that stuff," he said.

Vail High School's class focuses on the engineering aspects of robotics, said science teacher and robotics team co-sponsor Don Adams.

Some class objectives include practical experience with problem- solving, building and designing robots, Adams said.

"When we're not building, we're learning about careers in engineering," he said.

Math, research writing and physics are also integrated into the curriculum, he said.

That includes "figuring launch speeds, angles, levers and pulleys," he said.

Sunrise Drive science students spend six weeks in the school's Lego lab learning problem-solving methods, Ackerman said.

"They need to turn simple machines into a machine that will solve a problem," she said.

The students have had to build a miniature hospital bed and design it so the bed can go up and down, and also create robotic seeing-eye dogs using light sensors, she said.

Ackerman has worked with the third- and fifth-grade students so far this year and will eventually bring in the second and fourth- graders, she said.

The robotics portion of the class meets a state science requirement to design and construct a technical solution to a common problem, she said.

"This addresses the whole science-and-technology-in-society strand," she said.

A career path

Several career fields use robotics, ranging from aerospace to the automobile industry, said Ray Umashankar, assistant dean of the University of Arizona's College of Engineering.

"Robotics is used in very sophisticated devices that perform eye surgery, spacecraft, automobiles," Umashankar said. "The human imagination is really the limit."

Umashankar organizes a yearly summer robotics engineering camp for middle-school students at the UA.

The students work in teams to build robots that can win races, climb over rocks and burst balloons, he said.

He also brings in engineers from Texas Instruments, IBM and other corporations to talk to the students about engineering careers.

"Many of the children really do not have a clear idea of what an engineer does," he said. "They think engineers work on dirty shop floors."

Robotics played a huge role in helping Sonoran Science Academy senior Rami Srouji, 16, choose a career.

After wavering between the engineering and medical fields, Srouji, a member of the school's robotics team, wants to pursue aerospace engineering when he graduates from high school.

His background on the robotics team will help him when he applies for college, he said.

"Robotics is really attractive for colleges," said Srouji, an exchange student from Lebanon. "It actually shows that you have commitment and you know how to work hard."

What schools emphasize

Robotics programs and objectives for students in elementary, middle and high school.

Elementary School

Sunrise Drive Elementary School's robotics program teaches problem solving methods, collaborative work skills and computer programming.

The program is used in science classes and emphasizes technological problem solving.

The students use Legos to build robots that can move objects, overcome obstacles and react to light and touch.

Middle School

The University of Arizona's summer robotics-engineering camp introduces middle-school students to math and physics principles that are too complicated for elementary-school students.

Students learn geometry, incline planes and formulas for velocity and acceleration while building the robots.

They also use computer programming to give commands to the robots.

High School

Most local high-school programs cover a variety of topics, from computer-aided drafting to working with power tools.

Some students go through a design process and create prototypes before constructing the final robot.

Course objectives can include working with milling machines and welding equipment, hand tools and computer programming software.

Physics, math equations and research writing are among the academic objectives that students meet.