FROM TOP: MARK KOCINA/THE HARKER SCHOOL; COURTESY OF CASTILLEJA SCHOOL EARLY STEM AND ROBOTICS LEARNING The participation of girls and young women constitutes 66 South Bay Accent an important chapter in the story of STEM, and robotics training. But that by itself is not a reliable gauge of the importance of the training in many Bay Area private schools, where programs like FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) find wide popularity. FIRST was founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen, who created the Segway, a two-wheeled motorized personal vehicle, among many other inventions. His mission: to help young people get excited about science and technology, and experience the rewards that come from working and innovating in these fields. FIRST programs range from Lego Leagues (using Lego Mindstorms kits) for grades 4 to 8, to the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC), a full-on high school robotics challenge where students build life-size (or even larger-than-life-size) robots that can compete in regional and national events. FIRST events are designed to be fun as well as competitive and educational. You’re apt to see students climbing over ramps, hanging from and limbo-ing under bars, or scaling a makeshift castle. Eric Nelson, upper school robotics program director at The Harker School in San Jose explains that the FRC “is a fast-burn engineering environment where they have to go from concept to design to implementation and testing, then ship the robot to the competition, all in a six-week time frame,” Erik Mitchell, a sophomore at Valley Christian School, started working with robotics in the fifth grade, and likes the problemsolving nature of the competitions. “The league presents a problem, and so we’ll design arms and fabricate other things so the robot can get around these obstacles. I’ve learned how to look at these obstacles we have to traverse and fix these problems,” he says. Many teachers start laying the foundations for a STEM education at an early age. For example, Stratford School in Saratoga uses Bee-Bots, a small, toy-like programmable floor robot, to introduce basic coding concepts to preschoolers. Valley Christian School in San Jose starts teaching kids design, electrical and even coding concepts in the second grade (using software and other resources specifically geared toward their age groups). Michelle Grau, an engineering teacher at Nueva School in Hillsborough, begins preparing young students for STEM programs by engaging them in projects that teach them a problem-solving methodology, Design Thinking, a system developed by Stanford’s Institute of Design. That methodology focuses on solutions that meet the real needs of clients who will be using what the designers create. Grau believes this kind of problem solving starts with empathy. “It’s not always the obvious thing on the surface that you think is the problem. There are a lot of developers out there who create projects that no one actually needs or wants, because they didn’t actually pause to think about why a person would want what they made,” she explains. Another piece focuses on creative confidence and brainstorming. “When you talk to a kindergartener, Castilleja’s all-girls team, “Gatorbotics,” construct a 120-pound robot for the FIRST Robotics Competition. Karthik Sundaram, grade 12, from the Harker School, works in the robot lab salvaging electrical components from a prototype system no longer in use.
South Bay Accent - Feb/Mar 2017
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