Algebra is considered a gateway course – one that students must conquer in order to enter college. Cesar Larriva, an associate professor in the College of Education & Integrative Studies, is helping to ensure that the gateway swings open for students in Pomona and Walnut.
Larriva oversees a program that teaches teachers how to make math not only accessible, but captivating, which helps ensure that the fourth- through sixth-grade students at Montvue, Pueblo and Collegewood elementary schools grasp the concepts that will enable them to master algebra.
The key to the process is a robot that brings math to life. Students learn how to build and program their Lego Mindstorm kits, employing math principals they might not even realize they’re employing.
“There’s an entire process we take them through, but the kits are so highly developed that they’re very accessible,” Larriva says. “It involves clicking and dragging icons on their laptop computers. They don’t have to learn computer language to solve significant problems.”
Months of tinkering, cogitating and experimenting will culminate in a most unusual final exam.
On Tuesday, May 24, about 140 students from the three schools will converge on the Stables for the School Robotics Initiative’s Robot Expo to put their technical creations and their math knowledge to the test. From 10 to 12:30, they will pit their robots in sumo competition, send them on an archeological quest and coax them through a feat of timing and dexterity.
“Some of the math is subtly embedded, and some of it is critical to the robot’s success,” Larriva says. “Some kids dealing with decimals don’t really understand what the numbers mean. Through this, they get a very concrete experience.”
The long-term goal of the program is to build a pathway from elementary to middle school and beyond. As funding allows, Larriva and the teacher mentors he has guided will train new groups of teachers until the program encompasses fourth grade through high school.
“As we move up, we’re going to create grade-level challenges that bring math to life and make college a realistic goal,” Larriva says.
He thanked Professor Jawaharlal Mariappan for helping to energize the program.
“The School Robotics Initiative greatly appreciates and acknowledges Dr. Jawaharlal’s contributions to the Robot Rallies held in 2007, 2008 and 2009,” Larriva says.
Other support has also been important. A generous grant from Verizon has expanded training. The university has provided the robot kits. Teacher mentors have embraced the challenge of expanding the program.
And the school kids have provided the excitement.
(Top photo: Darrell Reeb and Brenda Sanchez work together to program their robots at Montvue Elementary School in Pomona on Nov. 16, 2009. Bottom photo: Fernando Acosta watches as his robot tries to complete a challenge.)