After years of teaching college students, mechanical engineering Professor Mariappan “Jawa” Jawaharlal has identified the “Ah ha!” moment – the critical time to capture students’ interest in science, technology, engineering and math.
It’s not their freshman year in college. It’s not high school or even middle school. It begins in the fourth grade.
It’s when most students are on a level playing field in their skills and potential, despite demographic or socioeconomic differences. It’s when girls have yet to shy away from math and can easily outshine the boys. It’s a critical time for teachers to link theory to real-world examples before students lose interest in the subjects.
“We have to show kids the applications of math and science in real life and that it’s not boring,” Jawa says. “They don’t have to know that they’re learning. That’s the best part – it should be fun and engaging.”
And who wouldn’t have fun when math and science come in the form of a LEGO robot?
“It’s like playing with Transformers,” says Barfield Elementary School teacher Ernesto de Santiago. “It creates so much interest, and I can see their eyes light up.”
On Tuesday, April 27 at 9:30 a.m., the College of Engineering will host a Robot Rally to celebrate students’ accomplishments and give them an opportunity to put their design ingenuity to the test. Students from Barfield in Pomona, Napa Elementary in Northridge and Rincon Intermediate in West Covina will face off in a sumo wrestling-style competition and a surprise event to see how well students can think – and program – on their feet. The event will be held in the atrium of Building 17.
Because the program expanded this year, a second Robot Rally will be held Tuesday, May 18 at 10 a.m. in the University Quad, hosted by the College of Education & Integrative Studies. This is the fourth year the college has held this event for students. Participating schools are Montvue Elementary and Pueblo Elementary in Pomona, and Collegewood Elementary in Walnut.
Every week, Jawa and his team of engineering undergraduates and volunteers visit de Santiago’s fourth- and fifth-grade combination class to teach students to design, build and program their Mindstorms NXT robots. The 15-week curriculum incorporates math and science – but students aren’t intimidated by it.
For one task in which the robots must autonomously travel exactly 5 feet, students had to calculate the wheel’s circumference and determine how many rotations were needed. Without realizing it, they were doing geometry – multiplying ?? and the wheel diameter and converting feet to inches.
When they play with the robots’ light and sound sensors, students learn a bit of physics. Fourth-grader Heidy Ibarra knows what sensors are: “The ultrasonic sensor says we’re 25 to 30 centimeters away. So we’ll do another move command.” But she doesn’t yet need to learn the scientific principles of bouncing sound waves – think sonar – to make her decision.
“They learn physics, but we don’t say we’re going to learn physics,” Jawa explains. “We say we’re going to learn about light sensors or ultrasonic sensors. They don’t learn all the theory, but they learn how it works and the basic concepts.”
Since 2007, faculty members from engineering and education have introduced elementary students to robotics education, whose principles reinforce everyday math and science lessons. The university hopes to develop a network of schools that will give students the option to participate in robotics from elementary through high school. Students will emerge with hands-on experience and technical skills that can help them succeed in college.
Cesar Larriva, associate professor of education, also trains classroom teachers so that their respective schools can develop sustainable robotics programs. “We’re developing teachers so they can help other teachers learn to use robotics in their curriculum,” he says. “We will move away gradually and they will become independent.”
The university-school partnership is an investment on both ends: Faculty share their expertise, and the school invests in laptop computers, $400 robot kits and instruction time.
Barfield Principal Rosa Mendieta believes the program is producing positive results. Students who struggled with math are showing more initiative, and bright students who were losing interest are being challenged and staying focused, she says.
(Top photo: Hannah Hauger, Caitllin Lucas and Laurene Loza program a robot at Barfield Elementary School in Pomona. Bottom photo: Barfield student Mykel Brown takes his robot off for a test drive on Feb. 23, 2010.)