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OH teacher gives glimpse into students’ – and his – amazing growth

Published April 15, 2019

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By Joe Slifka, LaBrae Local Schools, Leavittsburg, OH

(Editor’s Note: Joe Slifka ends every day excited for what the next day brings. As the technology teacher for LaBrae Local Schools, Joe is passionate about integrating robotics in his daily lessons and in after-school clubs, helping students become creators through the responsible use of technology.)

I interviewed for my first teaching job in July of 2007 and then went on vacation to Florida. While there, I received a phone call from the principal asking if I wanted the job. As promised to my family on the trip, I accepted the position, expressed my sincerest gratitude, and promptly ran, screaming my head off, “I’M A TEACHER, WOO-HOO!” and jumped off the end of the pier at our condo into the Gulf of Mexico.

Fast-forward 12 years and I’m now a robotics teacher for LaBrae Local Schools in Leavittsburg, Ohio. I started teaching the basics of programming to my middle school students when I started there in 2012. The following year, I created the RoboVikes, an after-school club where kids can stay after school to build and program robots. We started competing, got pretty good at it, and decided to graduate to the next level and compete in this year’s FIRST® Tech Challenge, ROVER RUCKUSSM.

We started our organization with 13 students, and it became pretty obvious that this is where we were destined to be. We sent 13 to our inaugural FIRST Tech Challenge event, many of them from the original crew! When I was asked to write this piece, Pitsco asked if I could focus on a specific student, but I don’t think that’s possible. I can’t talk about Brady without talking about Smitty, nor can Troy be overlooked for Johnell, so I will write about us, Team 14518, the RoboVikes.

We dove head first in the world of FIRST, not really knowing what it entailed. I’ve always been pretty good at writing grants, and through the support of our board of education and some generous local businesses and individual supporters, we had our finances in order to undertake such an excursion. So last May I signed us up . . . no turning back now! The kids tackled the project like they’ve done in the past; dive right in, settle on an idea, and make it work. Only this time, it didn’t. So, we researched. And read the game manuals. And then read them again at practice because, as I suspected, we hadn’t actually read them. Then, we started rocking it again. After reaching out to a local business for some financial assistance, they sent us two engineers to listen to the students’ ideas, asking them to explain why they thought it would work, making them cite examples, pointing out potential points of failure.

Watching the students explain to the engineers why they wanted to do what they were doing was one of those “this is why I became a teacher” moments. They wowed me with their ideas, proved me wrong more times than I can count, bloodied their knuckles trying to fix the stripped gears that I said probably wouldn’t work the way they wanted them to, and ate an ungodly amount of food throughout the season. Eventually, we produced a product that not only looked like a robot but also did what we programmed it to do (despite changing parts and programs mere hours before inspection).

Watching the RoboVikes as a whole this last year has been astounding. When I first met Chelsea, she was quiet and didn’t make waves in the club. She sat in front of a computer and wrote an amazing technical journal for us. At our FIRST Tech Challenge event in February, panic was starting to take hold of the group after our robot flipped over when an axle stripped out and we couldn’t right the robot. After an emergency “axle-ectomy” in the pits, lead programmer Colin wanted to fix something in the autonomous portion of our program, but the builders didn’t think it would work.

Marching in like a lion with a voice I’ve never heard before, Chelsea says, “You need to let him try, we’re here now, it’s not working the way it is. Let go of that idea, it’s not going to work, so let’s try this one.” So, we did . . . and it worked! She high-fived Colin, and both shared in the joy of the team as we finished 12th out of 28 at the tournament. Not bad for a bunch of rookies!

“I would never be interested in going back. This is too good of a system. Everybody needs this system. This is how they need to test children: don’t give them a paper and pencil; give them a lab activity and see what they can do.”

– Cathy Johnson, STREAM Missions facilitator, Elmore City-Pernell Elementary School, Elmore City, Oklahoma

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