Madison County Elementary Educators Teach STEM Through Robotics
Mannsdale Upper Elementary students Scarlett Rolph and Grace Tucker work on their driving skills while Kade Reich, a senior at Germantown High School, serves as the referee.
What began as a way to implement a new and challenging curriculum for gifted students in a Madison County school is now a fully-fledged engineering and robotics program teachers say will prepare students for future careers in STEM-focused industries.
With the help of high school engineering student-mentors, gifted students at Mannsdale Upper Elementary (MUE) are learning important robotics-related skills such as design, programming, and operation. Through training and competitions, students are challenged to expand their creativity and problem-solving skills through hands-on instruction that encompasses all aspects of STEM education.
Fourth and fifth grade Pathways teachers Sarah Noble and Kim Landry were instrumental in securing funding for VEX IQ robotics kits to establish the robotics-based curricula. The teachers received a $5,000 grant from Nissan of Mississippi in the fall of 2016 and two Girl-Powered Vex IQ Team Grants during the 2017-2018 school year that provided each teacher with one additional kit for their classrooms.
Landry said in December 2016, after they received the first kits purchased with the funds from the Nissan grant, she and Noble took a crash course in robotics with their students in preparation for their first competition, which was only three weeks away at the time.
“It was a whirlwind,” Landry exclaimed. “We had just received and unpacked our new kits, giving us roughly three weeks to build, program, and learn to drive our robots before going to compete.”
In 2017 and 2018, MUE students took part in a number of competitive events including local weekend competitions, Madison County Schools VEX IQ district competitions, the Mississippi VEX IQ State Championship, and the CREATE U.S. Open Robotics Championship Elementary Division that is held annually in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Despite their recent entry into the robotics arena, these students have progressed remarkably, and their experiences helped them qualify for nationals for the past two years. This year, Landry and Noble took three teams to April’s national competition in Iowa.
Each competition is designed to encourage students to think critically and creatively—both crucial elements of the engineering process. The VEX IQ curriculum is structured so robot design and building processes are the most difficult aspects when working with new robots. VEX IQ lays the foundation for students to understand how they can build and modify their robots to maximize scoring potential.
Landry says the greatest lesson taught in robotics education is resiliency.
“Students learn to continuously fail, rethink, redesign, rebuild, and reprogram their robots. They learn from their own and other teams’ victories and defeats,” she said. “They learn to build each other up and to take confidence in their own ideas and abilities. They learn that there is more to life than winning or losing and that the most important lessons in life cannot be assigned a grade.”
Some of the best advice these young students receive comes from their student-mentors, the members of the Ridgeland High School robotics team. This unlikely bond formed after MUE fifth graders won the Excellence Award at a local competition where they had an interview with the RHS robotics team. The high schoolers invited the younger students to join them in a work session to hone their design, driving, and programming skills. The relationship between the two groups helped the younger students become more confident in the classroom and during competitions.
Jennifer Richardson, career pathway experience coordinator at the Madison Career and Technical Center, said the positive encouragement these high school mentors provide to younger students not only sparks their interest in STEM but also teaches many lessons that will carry them through life.
“The high school students’ previous success is motivating the elementary and middle school students to do their best,” she said. “While their success is telling of the students’ passion for robotics, the skills they are learning, such as strategy planning, interpersonal, and writing skills, will help them in school, work, and life.”
While students are celebrating their own successes, they are also excited to see one of their teachers recognized for her hard work. At last year’s national competition in Iowa, Landry received an unexpected honor: She was named 2018 National Robotics Teacher of the Year.
“Receiving this award was very surprising because it was my second full year of teaching robotics and only my second time to attend nationals,” Landry said. “The only way that something like this is attainable is with the support of the colleagues and students who nominated me, supportive administrators and district personnel, and the hard-working students and parents who chose to get involved.”
The number of robotics programs and competitive teams is increasing across the Madison County School District, and administrators know offering STEM-related courses will help their students reach their full potential. MUE Principal Debra Houghton said she is amazed by how much her students have developed academically and as young leaders since starting the robotics course.
“We have seen them learn to work together and learn how to communicate better. It has also helped my students get to know other students in the district through the competitions and working with the other schools,” she said. “Having this available to my students has been so valuable for them in so many ways. It is teaching skills they can use for the rest of their life, skills that will get them into great colleges, skills that will help them navigate the workplace, and skills that help them find joy in the little things in life.”