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Robotics program piques students’ interest in science

It was down to the wire for Team Smash Brothers and Lightning Kill. Their robots had survived shoves and claws to emerge as finalists over 22 others in a Pomona competition last week. Now, the championship was at stake.

The teams of fifth- and sixth-graders shook hands. Then, action!

The bots, assembled with Lego parts and propelled by a computer chip the students had programmed, wheeled forward on a tabletop ring. They whirred and spun. Lightning Kill landed the first blow, knocking Smash Brothers on its side. Smash pushed back. Then Lightning Kill spun around and propelled itself out of the ring.

Victory for Smash Brothers! The crowd roared. The winning boys jumped up, eyes wide, mouths agape, fists pumping in the air.

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Can math be this much fun?

Christian Avila, the 10-year-old son of Mexican immigrant restaurant workers, never would have thought so. Math, he said, “was a little bit boring” with work sheets of division and multiplication.

Until last year, that is, when Cal Poly Pomona educators brought the robot program to his school, Montvue Elementary in Pomona, in an effort to excite kids about math by making it less abstract and more connected to real-life problem-solving -- such as how to program robots to knock one another out of the ring.

“Now we’ve found something we really like: robots,” said his grinning teammate and programming maestro, Juan Perez, an 11-year-old Mexico native whose father works in construction and whose mother is a school aide.

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Sparking interest in math and science among students such as Christian and Juan is, experts say, essential to reclaiming the nation’s slipping competitive edge. In the globalized economy, the only way to compete against countries with lower labor costs is with higher-skilled and trained workers, they say.

The issue is particularly acute in California, where retiring baby boomers -- the most educated workforce in U.S. history -- are set to vacate 3 million jobs in the next decade. Yet a significant portion of the replacement workers are likely to come from families like those at Montvue: immigrants and their children, who tend to be less prepared.

At Montvue, 89% of students are Latino, 61.8% are English language learners, and 89.7% qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Two-thirds do not meet proficiency standards in math, and three-fourths are not proficient in English and language arts, state data show.

And, with voter rejection of five budget propositions last week, prospects are grim that officials can find funds for the sizable public investments in education and training that a raft of business, academic and government leaders say are crucial to the nation’s future.

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In a 2007 study published by the National Academy of Sciences, experts warned that Americans would lose their economic leadership and high quality of life without significant investments in math and science education. Among other things, it recommended programs to offer four-year scholarships of $20,000 to recruit 10,000 math and science teachers and give pay incentives and grants to strengthen the skills of 250,000 current teachers.

Yet, in a follow-up study last year, the academy concluded that the nation had made little progress in funding such initiatives even though U.S. students continued to struggle with comparatively low math and science test scores.

Enter Cesar Larriva, a Cal Poly Pomona associate professor and math education specialist.

For years, Larriva said, he has been frustrated with the way math is taught in U.S. schools -- in particular, the focus on computation and manipulation of symbols disconnected, he said, from real-life experiences.

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“When we put students in a classroom, we isolate them from authentic practices,” he said. “People in the real world don’t do book reports or fill out work sheets.”

But robots, he thought, offered a different experience. So he found two classrooms, one at Montvue and the other at Collegewood Elementary in Walnut. He selected teachers to introduce the program. He nailed down a $140,000 grant to run the program for three years. And then they were off.

Students built the robots. Then they programmed their machines on a laptop. Larriva and his Cal Poly Pomona colleagues took care not to tell the students how to do it, but encouraged them to figure it out on their own, aiming to foster scientific inquiry, critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

To program a robot to move a foot forward, Juan explained, he had to figure out through trial and error how many wheel rotations it took to advance that distance. Then he had to figure out how many rotations it would take to move it 3.5 feet.

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“I tested it and if it didn’t work, I had to try again,” he said.

Among other things, the students learned measurement, fractions, decimals, proportional reasoning. But the key, Larriva said, is that “the mathematics are put toward a meaningful purpose, in stark contrast to what you see in the classroom.”

Mary Lou Ortiz-Jamieson, the teacher of the winning Montvue team, said she can’t keep her students away from the robots. “They come before school, at lunch and recess,” she said.

Cal Poly Pomona is seeking funds to expand the program to more elementary classrooms and eventually middle schools to create a pipeline to college. The educators say it is too soon to know whether the robots will help improve test scores, but already they seem to have inspired the students to see math in a more relevant light.

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At the moment, Christian wants to be a firefighter but says math will help him measure the length of the fire hose. Juan is figuring he’ll become either a construction worker like his dad, using math to measure planks of wood, or a video game programmer.

The boys say they’re sure about one thing: If robotics is offered next year, they’ll sign up in a heartbeat.

To see a video of this year’s robot competition at Cal Poly, visit latimes.com/math-robots.

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teresa.watanabe@latimes.com


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