At Acton Elementary School, they’ve added one more “r” to the traditional reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic: Robotics. With help from the Kepware® School Grant Program, Acton students are learning how to create and program complex, autonomous robots—and maybe how to save the world.
Robotics in Rural Maine
A small, pre-K to eighth grade school in rural Acton, Maine, Acton Elementary School was the recipient of last year's Kepware School Grant, which promotes Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education in Maine. Eiléan Worcester, Office Administrative Assistant at Acton, submitted a proposal to incorporate VEX robotics kits into a new STEM curriculum at Acton. Eiléan hoped that the kits would give students hands-on experience in problem-solving and critical thinking—all while they built really cool robots.
Seeing Acton in Action
As proposed in their grant, starting in the fall of 2016 Acton implemented a rigorous robotics program into their fourth- and fifth-grade science curriculum. In June, I was part of a small team that visited Acton to see how the Kepware grant had been put to use. The fourth- and fifth-graders treated us to a live robotics demonstration and an in-depth look at how they built and programmed the robots—using just some guidelines from VEX and their own imaginations.
We got to watch as students' custom robots successfully removed “hazardous materials” (represented by blocks) from a disaster site—without pushing the waste into nearby bodies of water drawn on the disaster site map. The kids also demonstrated how their automated robots could "deliver supplies" (represented by blocks) to a specific area on a hospital map—all pre-programmed and without remote control.
In these scenarios, students needed to tackle not just the robots' coding and construction, but the real-world complexities of the scenario—for example, driving the robot at a speed that would push the “waste” without losing control and designing a robot that could efficiently navigate tight turns. It was clear that these kids not only understood the complex mechanics that made these robots work—they were also thinking creatively about how technology could solve real-life challenges.
Creating Connections Beyond Technology
As impressive as the robots were, we learned that some of the most important skill-building didn’t involve any gadgets or gizmos. Sandra Packard, a fifth-grade teacher at Acton, told us that there was a considerable knowledge gap among the students at the beginning of the robotics curriculum. Some kids had in-depth experience through the school’s Lego robotics club, and Ms. Packard worried they would be frustrated when working with less experienced students. Instead, she was proud to watch as the expert kids became the go-to resource for the beginners, and patiently taught and collaborated with classmates. In addition to building robots, the students were also building an engaged community of peer-driven STEM-learners and STEM-teachers.
Acton Elementary was built in the 1950s, as a small four-room schoolhouse. Today, it includes some of the most innovative STEM curriculum in Maine. Kepware is proud to be part of Acton’s STEM initiatives that will help generations of students learn to create robots—while creating a solid foundation for life-long STEM learning.
The Kepware School Grant Program recipient for 2017 was recently announced, and the 2018 grant will open for submissions in early spring. Please visit our Kepware School Grant information page to learn about the grant and how it's helping Maine kids make strides in STEM.