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Robots teach Mission Viejo students STEAM fundamentals

Using the right kind of language is critical when it comes to telling a robot what to do.

Students at Mission Viejo Elementary School have learned that robots can be pretty amenable to suggestions, as long as they're getting the right commands. Thanks to a set of programmable robots called Pro-Bots, students are learning the fundamentals of programming at an early age. By using specific codes, students in kindergarten, first grade and second grade are creating specific commands for miniature robots shaped like colorful race cars and bumble bees.

Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) teacher Helen Clark said working with these robots offers students a valuable foundation when it comes to learning how to properly harness with sophisticated technology.

"The first thing they learn is that they are actually controlling the robots through their codes. They are deciding what the robots are doing," Clark said, after a recent Pro-Bot session with Mission Viejo second-graders. "They're learning basic commands – moving forward, turns, pauses – and we're adding more complex things like repeats and loops."

Students like Elyssa Olivas, 7, were learning how to use the capabilities of STEM to express their creative side. They programmed racecar-shaped robots to guide the path of a marker across a piece of paper, creating colorful shapes and patterns in the process.

"We put the numbers down on the board and that will make a shape if we put in the right code," Olivas said. "It makes me want to learn more about how to program different types of robots, because I'm starting to think that if we get good at these ones, what will the next ones look like?"

Other students like Janiya Kazongo, 8, programmed a bee-shaped robot to follow a colored grid along a certain path. She worked to steer to bot clear of hazards and find an optimal route around the space. The activity combined the programming lessons of robotics with supplementary curriculum about bees, pollination and nature.

According to Clark, the robots offer a spectrum of complexity to the students, giving them a chance to master basic skills and move on to a more creative, imaginative approach with the technology. In other words, these simple bots offer an ideal bridge to STEAM learning, or curriculum that combines the traditional elements of STEM with the arts.

"The neat thing is that the students can see the code that they're putting in on the screen of the robots," Clark said. "They can correct that code and they can make it more sophisticated on the fly."

These valuable tools came after Clark submitted a funding proposal as part of the Cherry Creek Schools Foundation's Educator Initiative Grants program. The Foundation's EIGs are made available to educators every year, and are designed to support projects across the district in every discipline. The funds also reflect the core mission of the CCSF, which is dedicated to funding opportunities for all students in the district in innovative ways and helping build partnerships within the community.

The grant gave Clark the proper resources to purchase enough robots for students in all of her STEM classes.

"Previously, we didn't have any robots. The only coding students were able to do was on a screen, on a computer," Clark said. "These robots are very tactile, and the students can see immediately how coding is affecting them. It's been incredibly valuable – they've taken the skills they've learned from the robots and taken them onto the computer."

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