Grant to bring robots to KSES
by Paige Rentz
Cayla Petty never really saw herself as a Lego person, but a school project has her rethinking that.

“I never thought I would be so engaged with Legos … but it was really fun,” the 12-year-old said of an “in-school field trip” that brought Lego robots to her gifted class at Kitty Stone Elementary School last month and inspired teacher Brigett Stewart to start an elementary robotics program on a more permanent basis.

After seeing the “phenomenal” engagement level of her students, Stewart applied for and received a one-time grant from the Alabama Power Foundation to fund $2,300 worth of Lego Mindstorms kits and other materials to teach students about electricity and renewable energies.

Scott Exum, business office manager for Alabama Power’s Jacksonville office, said his company is pushing to help develop future engineers, and Stewart’s proposal – which highlights an initiative to incorporate more science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, projects into classrooms – aligns with these efforts.

Already the company helps local high school students learn basic robotics in order to compete in a nationwide competition.

“We see this as an earlier part of this,” Exum said. “Developing their minds early and developing them hands-on, it doesn’t get any better than that.”

And it doesn’t hurt that Stewart’s project helps students develop skills such as teamwork and problem-solving they will need to carry into the workforce.

“What I liked about the Lego experiment is that we each had a partner, and we used relationship skills and working together and partnership to build something,” 12-year-old Dylan Murphy said.

Cayla said the tilt-a-whirl she and her partner worked on for the class’s Lego amusement park kept breaking and had to be rebuilt.

“It made us think because if you messed up one little bit, you had to go back and fix it,” added Libby Patterson, 12, who built a Ferris wheel.

Gerry Wheeler, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, said such engaging, hands-on projects in younger grades could help students stick to a more rigorous science and math curriculum later. Wheeler said studies show that as students approach sixth and seventh grade, many – particularly girls and minorities – head away from science-related fields.

“We’ve got to stop the leaky bucket in junior high,” he said. “We’re losing too many, and I’m pretty sure we’re losing them because they don’t see the relevance.”

Tim Green, dean of workforce development at Gadsden State Community College, agreed with Wheeler’s assessment. “If you don’t get to them until the 10th or 11th grade, they’re not going to have the science and math skills they need for robotics,” he said.

Green said technology will continue to move in leaps and bounds, therefore it’s essential to prepare students to work in these fields early.

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economics and Statistics Administration, 1 in 18 workers nationwide held STEM jobs in 2010. Growth in this sector outpaced non-STEM jobs from 2000 to 2010 at a rate of 7.9 percent to 2.6 percent, respectively, and is expected to continue to outpace other sectors of the workforce in the coming years.

But what Green calls a mismatch in openings in the STEM job market and the available skilled workforce means that technical programs like those in air-conditioning and refrigeration, electrical engineering technology and industrial automation at Gadsden State can’t provide enough students to fill them.

“There’s not enough people enrolling in these programs,” he said. “We should have a waiting list in every one of these programs.”

The way to solve this, Green said, is with programs likely to inspire an interest in students who might not have thought STEM subjects were for them Ñ programs exactly like Kitty Stone’s Legos.

“It was one of those things, once you do it, you want to do it again,” said Libby. “I can tell we’re going to want to do it almost every day because it was an amazing experience.”
© 2012