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West Point Leads Middle School Students In Robotics STEM Workshop

Dozens of middle school students gathered in Essex, New York recently for a science, technology, engineering and math workshop.  The students were guided in building robots by instructors and cadets from the Military Academy at West Point.
The College for Every Student Center in Essex is filled with the sounds of 7th and 8th graders from six schools working.  

Elizabethtown-Lewis Central School student Abigail  Lindsay is with Crown Point Central School student Christopher Johnson, following a guide to put together a motorized robot.   “It’s just getting a little more complicated than it was at first. I think it goes like that. Let’s look at the next page and see if it looks right.”

U.S. Military Academy Senior Nicholas Greene is roaming the room helping students.   “This is a STEM workshop, science, technology, engineering and math, and it’s a way for West Point to get kids more involved in science, engineering, technology and math.  So essentially it’s a robot made out of Lego’s and then we have motors and we’ll give them what we call a brain later. That’s what they’re going to program to control on these mats.  This is actually an easy way for them to get thinking about how can I build this, how can I engineer this? And then you get the technology part of actually programming and actually working with that software.  But then also you get the science.  They’ve got to do experiments and be able to get it to track on this mat here.”

The 40 middle school students spend the morning working in  teams to build robots led by U.S. Military Academy at West Point Department of Mathematical Sciences Assistant Professor Dr. Kendall Williams.  He explains that working with the robots gives the students all the components of STEM.    “Of course they get the hands-on engineering portion in their build in the morning.  Technology of course encompasses all of it. The mathematics and the science come in more so in the afternoon in the programming to actually get them to figure out what do I want my robot to do and what math can I use to figure out what program I should write to have it do those particular things.  So we try to cover a component of every little bit of STEM that we possibly can.”

Once all the students have built their robots, the cadets distribute laptops and Dr.  Williams prepares them to program the brain.   “Now everybody’s screen looks like mine.  Notice some information now has popped up at the bottom of your screen.”

Among the things Williams must teach the students is how to calculate the distance they will want their robots to go and then how to make the mobile robots turn.   “How far the robot will go in one rotation of the wheel?  You are going to need to know that.  In one rotation of the wheel the robot goes about 7 inches.  If I want to go 35 inches how many rotations should I put in?”

Once assured the kids understood how to program and download the information to their bot, the testing begins on four mats laid out on the floor.

By measuring, calculating, testing and reprogramming, the teams eventually perfected, they hoped, a transit around a square route marked on the mat.

Crown Point Central School 7th grade science teacher Crystal Farrell excitedly watches the students’ progress through the day.   “There is a multi-level excitement here.  They’re not only engaged visually, they’re engaged with hands on activities and all of their senses are working.  So they have this idea that okay science, technology, engineering and math they gave them something that they can actually hold onto and put all of those different practices to use.  So then they can think hey it doesn’t mean just doing math with paper and pencil. This means using specific criteria to make something happen. And that’s just eye opening for them.”

The students had an hour to complete their testing and programming before a competition to determine whose robot most accurately ran the course.   “Accuracy.  Remember the whole run.  Not just where it starts and stops. The entire run.”

Dr. Williams notes that West Point conducts robotic STEM workshops for middle schools across the country in part to broaden the perception about the military academy.  "You have math. You have science. You have English. You have history.  You have all of these different things. Although it is one of the oldest and one the most respected engineering institutions in the country, it’s not broadly known.  So that’s why we go out and we do this."

CFES will hold a STEM week in April with participating schools.  West Point holds an annual three-day middle school STEM workshop at the military academy.

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