At Linden Elementary School, Lisa Buckner’s third-graders are building robots and Lego floats representing continents in a months-long project aimed at engaging them in learning, problem solving, and creative and critical thinking.
The 38 members of Oak Ridge High School’s Secret City Robotics team are solving real-world problems as they build and program a 120-pound robot to enter FIRST Robotics Competitions as an extra-curricular activity.
Teachers view robots and Lego sets as tools giving Oak Ridge students opportunities to collaborate, design, build, and solve problems as they learn engineering, science, and technology skills, both inside and outside the classroom.
The Oak Ridge Public Schools Education Foundation supported these activities with $18,700 in grants last year to teachers at the Oak Ridge High School, Jefferson and Robertsville middle schools, and Linden Elementary School. The grants included a UT-Battelle donation of $10,000 directed to FIRST Robotics Competition, FIRST Tech Challenge, and FIRST Lego League teams, all extra-curricular programs at the high school and middle schools.
The grants were among 16 grants totaling $80,000 that the Education Foundation awarded in 2014. Since 2005, the Education Foundation has awarded more than $568,000 in grants. The 2015 grants will be awarded this spring.
Janie Shanafield, FIRST Lego League coach at Jefferson Middle School, more than doubled participation in the FLL teams there from 10 to 25 students this school year with the grant, which also helped purchase more materials for the teams and cover entry fees for competitions. She started the FLL with one team during the 2013-14 school year, and three teams participated in the after-school program this year.
“I have bought into the whole idea, just to see students grow. They learn how to program, how to build. They work on communication skills and presentation skills. They have to do a research project, follow core values, and be able to speak. It covers the whole person,” said Shanafield, speech language pathologist at Jefferson.
The Jefferson teams recently hosted the Atomic City Invitational at the middle school. Two of the schools’ three teams attended the February 14 East Tennessee Championship, with one, Atomic Eagles, chosen to represent the region in a competition in Arkansas in May, and a second, JMS Master Builders, winning the highest robot performance score.
“Without the support of the Oak Ridge Public Schools Education Foundation, this would not have been possible,” said Shanafield, who coaches FLL teams with teachers David Hundermark and Lexie Scott. Parents and community mentors serve as volunteers in all the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) extra-curricular programs.
Lisa Buckner joins teacher Rodney King at Robertsville Middle School to coach a FLL team, and they introduced a FIRST Tech Challenge team to Robertsville this year. The Tech Challenge offers a higher level challenge with a TETRIX platform for designing, building, and programming a robot. The FTC team, among the youngest at a recent Georgia competition, won the second place Rockwell Collins Innovate Award there and met a former astronaut judging the challenge.
Buckner became interested in FLL when her son, now in high school, was in third grade and participated in FLL with a homeschooled friend. After attending a competition with him, she encouraged Linden to get involved and started incorporating Lego bricks and robots in her classroom.
“At the elementary level, we have the chance to turn them on to science or turn them off. I would rather get them excited and thinking they can do this,” Buckner said. “They are engineering a solution. They are cooperating with their peers. There is a lot of teamwork involved.” Also, they are reading technical materials because they have to read them to learn how to build the robots, she said.
At Oak Ridge High School, the Secret City Wildbots FIRST Robotics team had a limited time in February to build and program a robot for a recycle theme game, designed to bring students close to real world engineering.
“These are real world problems and real world deadlines,” said Gordon Williams, team coach and ORHS Engineering and Robotics Academy leader. As the team built the robot, they were building a mini-forklift, learning about gears, belts, and transmissions and about moving things from place to place, he said. The grant helped purchase parts and materials for the robot and will provide funds for a Lego League-style summer camp for young students.
The FIRST extra-curricular programs encourage older students to mentor younger teams and stress values of teamwork, cooperation, friendly competition, and the importance of discovery over winning.
The Education Foundation is continuing its support of Oak Ridge public schools through its “Making the Critical Difference” campaign to raise $500,000 for grant awards of $100,000 a year for five years for all the schools. The grants program offers one-time grants to teachers for resources to enhance learning for students in pre-K through high school. The Education Foundation board believes that these grants have a strong supporting role in sustaining the tradition of excellence in Oak Ridge Schools.
The Oak Ridge Public Schools Education Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded in 2000, invests in the Oak Ridge Public Schools to ensure the highest quality of education for its students. The foundation, providing funds beyond public tax dollars for education, raises funds through grants and private donations to invest in enhanced educational programming, innovative technology, and state-of-the-art facilities for teachers and students.
For more information about making a donation to the Oak Ridge Public Schools Education Foundation, call Jessica Steed at the foundation office at (865) 241-3667 or see the foundation’s website at www.orpsef.org.