Learning Matters: STEMs from a robotics competition

The event was just a practice-round Lego robotics competition for elementary and middle school students, held at Roosevelt Middle School as a way to introduce new teams to how such competitions work.

Nonetheless it was a model of how schools can integrate science, technology, engineering and mathematics — often called STEM — into instruction. Much of what education and business leaders have called central to improving education and preserving America's leadership in the world was in evidence at Roosevelt last week.

Nearly 20 teams came from Glendale and beyond, happy to spend a Saturday directing their robotic Lego vehicles across tables spread out in the gym and under the lunch shelters. Laptops in hand, team members sent their robots humming and whirring on their assigned tasks, trying for speed and efficiency. The tasks were fun, obviously. But they were practical too: They modeled responses to natural disasters.

Many of the students were accompanied by equally enthusiastic parents — a few of them professional engineers from technology powerhouses like Jet Propulsion Laboratory — all of them eager to support their children's budding interests. Both parents and teachers served as team advisers. Others milled about as happy fans or manning snack tables.

Engineering students from Glendale Community College and CSUN volunteered as judges, while robotics students at Crescenta Valley High School mentored those taking part in the competition. (Robotics students at Clark Magnet High School were unable to participate, as they were competing at another event). All shared their experience and enthusiasm for robotics. It was inspiring for all — the younger students, but also those older. I suspect some high school seniors went home and recounted this experience in college application essays.

In the midst of everything were two teachers, Randy Kamiya and Frank Gonzalez. Kamiya started offering robotics soon after coming to Roosevelt from John Muir Elementary in 2005. Gonzalez joined him shortly thereafter. Since then, they have been spreading the word and the robots to young students and teachers across the district.

As Kamiya put it, "Come to a robotics competition and I'll show you multidisciplinary learning and cross-age mentoring, project-based learning, and application of the Common Core curriculum, where students collaborate to solve problems and explore career and technical education pathways." Lyn Repath-Martos, a committed CV robotics parent, referred to Kamiya as something like a horse whisperer. "He never raises his voice, but the students will do whatever he asks them to do," she said.

I freely admit I wouldn't know how to design or program a robot if my life depended on it. But since it someday might, I want to make sure there are enough people nearby who know robots and speak their language. As Scott McGregor, president and chief operating officer of Internet giant Broadcom, said at a recent presentation in Los Angeles, "If machines are going to make a lot of stuff, you better know how to run machines."

I'm cheering for our robotics teams, our students who design and run machines. But I'm concerned that funding is spotty and uncertain for activities so closely in line with the Common Core state standards and the emphasis on STEM.

Much of the cost of Saturday's event was covered by funds Kamiya cobbled together from grants, donations and Associated Student Body funds. Kamiya and Gonzalez and a few others, particularly Clark Principal Doug Dall and high school robotics teachers David Black and Dr. Greg Neat, are leading the way, with significant help from partners like Glendale Community College faculty member Tom Voden.

Much of this work is being done for the love of it, but love eventually needs support. Some of the parents at the event paid $200 for their children to be on a team formed by parents because their child's school hadn't budgeted the funds. "Our son had to do this!" STEManiac team mom Leslie Dickson told me.

I'm hopeful that as schools move into the new Common Core curriculum, all our students will get to do this, and their teachers will be appropriately compensated for such extraordinary commitments of time.


JOYLENE WAGNER is a former member of the Glendale Unified School District Board of Education. She can be reached at jkate4400@aol.com 


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