These middle schoolers are building their own roving robot mascot
Last year, as Charlotte Joyce walked the aisle of a bus packed with sixth graders on the ride back from Legoland, she asked them, one-by-one, what they had liked most about their fieldtrip.
"Even though they were in a theme park with roller coasters, without reservation, every single student said they liked the classroom best," says the magnet coordinator from Joseph Stilwell Military Academy of Leadership in Jacksonville, Florida.
"I thought, 'we are doing education wrong,'" she says.
The 250 students had spent an hour indoors at the theme park, learning about robotics. They, like all of Stilwell’s students, come from low-income families. The school, which transitioned from a standard public school to a magnet school focused on leadership in 2014, provides them with reduced lunches and a challenging academic environment.
At school, students were already learning about military rankings and leadership and would soon be getting an aeronautic rocketry class. Building robots, however, had not been on Joyce's radar for curriculum until she saw how excited her students were that day.
Inspired by the Legoland trip, Joyce began an after-school robotics program that was an instant hit among students. Joyce knew the hands-on nature of the program, in which students build and manipulate robots in small groups, had the potential to become a compelling part of the school's curriculum.
"You are learning so much and you are doing it completely kinesthetically," says Joyce. "Most children learn better by doing. When you have this magnificent program where students can build something, see their error, and go back and fix it, they're learning math and science but it's like a game."
Although it had limited resources and classroom space, the program soon attracted a waitlist of participants.
At the start of 2016, after receiving a $20,000 grant from the Verizon Foundation, the school began to make plans to expand the program by integrating an engineering design class into the school day. Soon, students will learn the logistics of how to build and handle robots.
Students also started work on a mechanoid robot whose movements are controlled by a smartphone.
"The mascot of our school is the patriot. We are calling him Pat the Prototype Patriot," says Joyce. The robot will roam the school and halls, wearing a uniform, and encouraging students' interest in robotics. "The benefit this brings to students in amazing. They don't feel like they are learning," says Joyce. "They feel like they are playing."