A fistful of robots


By Bill Noblitt

How can building robots help elementary, middle and even high school students learn about math, physics, reading, writing and engineering? And what kind of robots are we talking about here? R2D2, C3PO from Star Wars or that stunning robot babe from the silent film Metropolis?

No, at least not at ESU’s Teachers College. These are much smaller and toy-like but no less important.

Jane Eberle & Matt SeimearsIn fact, two different professors use robots in diverse, experimental ways to inspire their students—who will become teachers—to use robots in their classrooms. Both ESU professors believe the K-12 students learn the basic skills of math, physics and engineering. But Dr. Jane Eberle, education professor, takes it further. She believes that literature, such as books like I Robot, and writing about the ethical meaning of having robots in our lives can be part of what is learned too.

“In fact, robots can be used as an innovative way to teach skills in all disciplines,” explains Eberle.

On the other hand, Dr. Matt Seimears, education professor, challenges his class in a competition with middle school and high school students to build robots that must perform preset tasks, such as collecting moon rocks or delivering a first-aid kit to an injured person. The robot that does it the best wins. The students, both middle and high school and those from ESU, learn about teamwork too and how working together builds winners.

Seimears learned about robots in the classroom by accident. He teaches science students who will become middle and high school teachers, and he discovered robots as what he thought would be a small enhancement. Little did he know that in time, robots would take over his classroom.

His ESU students compete each fall and spring against each other but also against teams of eighth graders. Outside, independent judges choose the contest winners. Seimears and Scott Capes, an ESU graduate who also uses STEM in his Emporia High School classes, work together to put on the competition.

Zach Rampy, an ESU junior, knows the value of using robots in science classrooms. “Students learn to think critically,” he says. Science becomes more than a pencil and paper exercise. It’s a hands-on experience, so students better grasp the science concepts involved.”

As an elementary teacher, Eberle used Legos in her classroom to motivate students. She quickly saw the benefits of hands-on learning, but her goals are much broader at ESU. “I want my students to integrate technology into every elementary classroom subject,” she explains. “Study after study shows high school students drop out because of a lack of interest. I want these students to get interested in learning again.”

Her future teachers learn the cross-disciplinary nature of using Lego robots in the classroom. “They can read science fiction about robots, watch films about them, and write fantasy pieces as well,” she says.

But it’s that teamwork concept that is most important.

“Kids who may not have the hands-on skills depend on others who do,” she says. “It becomes a peer tutoring exercise. Students learn the strengths and weaknesses of others and learn that we all bring important skills to the table to make the world work.”

Bill Noblitt is ESU’s Director of Marketing and Media Relations. This story is a condensed version of one that first appeared in Quest, the research magazine for Emporia State University, and is used with permission.