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Building robotics skills in summer

At Thomas Jefferson Day School in Joplin, MO, TETRIX® keeps students engaged in summer learning

Published October 3, 2017
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JOPLIN, MO – For most young people, summer break is a time to explore the world on their own terms. But freedom isn’t found only outside the classroom. With the right approach, the resources and support a classroom provides can be liberating, exciting, and valuable – even during the summer.

The middle-level robotics summer camp offered at Thomas Jefferson Independent Day School in Joplin, Missouri, is a great example. Students, mostly working with TETRIX® robotics kits from Pitsco Education, engage themselves in building unique robots of their own design. Ask the students why they are taking this camp and the answers are as individual as the students themselves are.

For one student, it might be raw curiosity. “I wanted to build a robot to see how it works,” said Jacob.

For another, the subject represents a family connection and a potential future. “My dad is an engineer. He makes electronics like these things,” says Vigo, gesturing at the robotics kit components. Does he wish to follow this path? “Yes, but I will probably build robots.”

And for another, the course is an opportunity for a thrilling challenge. Says Avery, “Robotics makes you work with your own hands instead of having somebody else do it for you. . . . I’ve built robots before, but this is my first time using [TETRIX]. I like how it is more complicated than the ones I usually do. It makes me think more.”

Of course, an instructor is likely to have his own set of ambitions.

Thomas Jefferson instructor Robert Carlson shares his thoughts on the value of the course. “Students work together and solve problems in this course, and those skills are just as valuable as the mechanical and programming skills they learn,” he said. “Nothing ever works the way they expect it to the first time, so they certainly develop skills in troubleshooting.”

In other words, students make their own discoveries in here. Carlson emphasizes this point. “When they encounter problems, we don’t want their first instinct to be throwing up their arms and saying, ‘Do it for me,’ or ‘I can’t do it.’ We work through the problem-solving process so they can figure out on their own why it is not working.”

Though this particular summer camp is new, the Thomas Jefferson school has been combining robotics and education for years. Carlson’s first foray was an after-school class for fifth graders and then soon after in an elective course for the middle school students. The school now offers a robotics program based in TETRIX for the high school level as well, and students attend regional competitions.

Carlson sees robotics as an enhancement of what the students learn in their core classes, particularly math and science. “They learn about basic machines in science class, and they apply that to something more complex like robots. . . . They are having fun learning math and solving problems. The robots are an excellent classroom tool for building programming, math, science, teamwork, and problem-solving skills.”

Periodically, students bring their parents to the classroom to show off their robotic projects. The parents tell Carlson that the students talk excitedly at home about what they do in the camp – a sure sign that they are following their passion while getting a good education too. Sounds like a perfect summer.

“Science should be for real. We should not be reading about it. We should be doing it. Expeditions have very much that same philosophy. It is the doing of it which grounds the theoretical information that you’re teaching.”

– Dr. Tammy Scot, teacher, Arapahoe Charter School, Arapahoe, North Carolina

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