Inside, members of the Bowdon Elementary robotics club and their high school mentors spend one afternoon a week manipulating Lego pieces to create what could eventually become a moving, talking robot.
The third graders on Wednesday constructed a motorized boat from Legos, which they programmed to rock back and forth.
According to Kathy Jenkins, a parent sponsor of the club, this is the second year of robotics club at BES and the only limitation with the group so far is that the interest in the club has far outpaced the funding.
Jenkins said the ultimate goal is to expand the study of robotics to all the schools in Bowdon cluster, to pass on what has become a way of teaching science, technology, engineering and mathematics concepts through creative problem-solving to potentially every student in Bowdon.
“They’re building, they’re manipulating the Lego pieces,” Jenkins said. “Then they hook it up to the computer and they animate it. They make it turn, it can talk, there’s a sound card with it. We have motion sensors, tilt sensors. This just grabs their attention, shows them how to use a robot to manipulate ordinary things. That’s a huge concept for an 8-year-old. It is empowering and it’s teaching them that math and science don’t have to be boring.”
The young students in the BES robotics club are being taught the basics of STEM studies from their older counterparts, who developed a robotics club at their middle school a few years back, and have progressed to the point of gaining regional recognition for the work they have done.
At the end of last month, Bowdon High School students Daniel Cater and Sam Jenkins entered a robot in the West Georgia Educational Technology Fair and won first place recognition for a device that could pour a Coke and dispose of the bottle remotely.
At the same competition, 11 students from the Carrollton City School System were first place winners in a variety of STEM subjects and all the regional competition’s winners will be heading to Macon next month to compete at the state level.
As the Bowdon cluster continues to grow one of the county school system’s first robotics programs — two more are gaining steam at Central Elementary School and the College and Career Academy — officials at Carrollton City Schools are poised to expand STEM studies from the youngest elementary school students to seniors in high school.
“More than anything, kids are looking at a way of plugging into school, and we want to catch the kids at the front end,” said Jason Mundorf, principal of Carrollton Middle School. “Kids look for a group they want to associate with. It’s a unique way for kids with like interests to meet up. We want to get them involved in engineering applications earlier; it gives them a way to creatively think outside the proverbial box. Our hope is ultimately to have STEM studies systemwide.”
Carrollton City Schools were aided in this venture in 2010, when a federal grant written by Title I Director Annette Murphy was awarded to the system through the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009.
The funds provided more than $690,000 to Carrollton High School and Carrollton Junior High School to strengthen STEM studies.
The federal government had pegged STEM as major areas of interest for funding, following reports that American students had begun to lag behind other countries in their knowledge of these subjects.
In a report to the president in 2010, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology stressed a need in renewed attention to STEM studies.
“International comparisons of our students’ performance in science and mathematics place the United States in the middle of the pack or lower,” the report read. “This inadequate preparation in STEM subjects has major consequences in higher education. Only about a third of bachelor’s degrees earned in the United States are in a STEM field, compared with approximately 53 percent of first university degrees earned in China, and 63 percent of those earned in Japan.”
Robotics and other technological and engineering studies have in essence, become the local community’s answer to the dwindling proficiency and interest outlined in the 2010 report.
Both school systems have established partnerships with the local wire manufacturing company Southwire, which provides students with opportunities for additional learning in engineering and technology.
“Last year the boys just decided they really would like to foster an interest in other kids and get more kids going to the technology fair,” Jenkins said. “It really does teach the kids a lot about math and those logical thinking processes. The way our county’s moving, if they develop this love of math and science early, they can get into the 12 for Life program.”
Perhaps an unexpected result of putting these priorities in STEM was the level of actual enjoyment students got out of participating.
Mundorf told members of the Carrollton City Board of Education Tuesday that while he had a goal of establishing STEM at the middle school when he took over as principal, he was unaware of the number of students wanting to participate.
“We started [at the middle school] this year and put some clubs together after school,” he said. “I had no idea what kind of interest we would have. We have 134 students involved in STEM. With the robotics club, their one day of week has become every day a week and we have parents that come every day. It’s really captured some great momentum.”
Meanwhile at Carrollton High School, Assistant Principal Stacy Lawler, who is also the STEM director, said there are 188 students participating in STEM classes, and the school wrapped up its first ever Vex Robotics Competition last weekend.
In the competition, students showcased robots they had created themselves, as well as the work their creations could do through remote controls.
Unfortunately for both city and county schools, robotics is an expensive hobby, and even aided with grant funds, participants often are left to fund-raise for themselves.
“For Vex, we bought some of their stuff with our STEM grant that we had a few years ago,” Lawler said. “Once they get to our second and third STEM class, they pay their own way, they raise their own money through fundraisers.”
Jenkins said that at Bowdon, the robotics clubs are partially funded by the Bowdon Educational Fund and grants from Carroll EMC and Georgia Power. The hope, she said is to extend robotics to Bowdon Middle School in the near future, to satisfy an already lengthy waiting list.
“The children want this program,” she said. “The kids that will benefit from it need it to remain competitive. It’s coming along, it’s a slow process but I really think it’s worthwhile.”
Jenkins said that for those interested in donating to the Bowdon robotics clubs, tax deductible donations can be made to the Bowdon Educational Fund at bowdoneducationfund.org.