DANIEL CLIFTON • PICAYUNE EDITOR
SPICEWOOD — There’s a Mindstorm rolling through Spicewood Elementary School every Friday after school. Fortunately, a group of dedicated students are meeting the challenge head on with lines of coding, scattered Lego pieces, electric motors and tons of ideas.
“Yeah, it’s pretty amazing to watch them take this and really come up with some amazing things,” said Spicewood Elementary School teacher Sasha Chesnut.
But don’t worry. A group of space-invading robots has not set its sights on the elementary campus. Instead, it’s the fourth- and fifth-graders who are building the robots as part of the First LEGO League, an international program that introduces students to science and technology.
Every Friday, when the rest of the campus has headed home for the weekend, 20-30 students stick around for two more hours for the Robotics Club. During those 120 minutes, the students divide into teams — each consisting of programmers and builders — to tackle robotic missions.
Logan Barnes is a programmer on one of the teams. He and his team move between a competition table where missions take place and a computer in the school lab. The team’s mission involves getting their robot to move forward, press down a lever to open a “window” and then move forward again to open a door.
On several attempts, the LEGO Mindstorm robot rolls to the window/door on the table and lowers its arm attached to its right side. It presses the lever to open the window, but the arm slips off the lever, failing to raise the device far enough. Then the robot rolls forward, almost knocking down the small, LEGO-built structure.
The boys discuss the problems, consider what went wrong and retreat back to the computer lab with robot in hand to “tweak” the programming.
“You’re right there,” Chesnut encouraged them. “You almost got it.”
Barnes, a fifth-grader, finds working with robotics interesting and exciting.
“I like to program and code and thought this would be something fun,” he said between trips to the computer and competition table. “It’s something I can do with my friends. And it gives me a chance to learn new ways of programming.”
The fact the robot doesn’t do what he and his team want on the first try (or next several) doesn’t frustrate Barnes. Instead, he and his teammates, including Alex Diaz, just concentrate on finding a way to make it work.
Chesnut decided to organize the Robotics Club mainly to give fourth- and fifth-graders a way to implement lessons they learned in math and science. But, she pointed out, it also gets them excited about STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). She landed funding through a Legacy Foundation grant, which helped get the club going with one LEGO Mindstorm kit. One kit provides enough for up to 10 students.
When the club met for the first time, about 30 students showed up. The meetings regularly draw more than 20 kids.
“I really didn’t expect that many kids,” Chesnut said. She was able to keep the kids involved and interested, but recently, a FIRST LEGO grant will cover another kit.
Chesnut started out introducing students to STEM opportunities through teaching coding such as Scratch, a visual coding language, that allows kids to create their own video games and similar activities. Soon, it became apparent their abilities needed more challenges, enter LEGO League.
Chad Levert, the parent of two Spicewood students — Camden and Brooklyn — serves as co-coach. As a software designer, Levert brings quite a bit of experience and knowledge to the program. But it’s up to the students to come up with the coding and robot design and construction.
As for the things students learn, Levert said coding and programming open up a world of possibilities.
“If you can code or program, the job market is just amazing,” he said. But Levert pointed out learning to code isn’t just for people interested in computer programming as a career. With computers and software part of almost every job, a person with coding skills can develop business- or office-specific programs to help him or her in daily operations. It makes the person even more valuable to the employer.
Back at the mission table, future careers aren’t on the minds of students Sadie Hass and Brooklyn Levert as they work on getting the LEGO robot to throw a ball into a small soccer-style goal. At first, the ball flies forward, but on other attempts, the robot’s arm hurls it backwards. The two programmers go back and forth between the computer lab and mission table, adjusting the coding and finally reversing the throwing arm and motor on the robot.
Holding their breath, the team sets up the robot, and Sadie presses the button to initiate the throw. The robot sits momentarily, but then its arm rolls forward, tossing the small blue ball. The ball bounces and misses the net, but the girls see it as a step in the right direction. They tweak the robot a bit, and after a few more throws, the ball rolls into the net.
“There you go,” Chad Levert said. “You just have to keep working at it.”
The work is far from over. Throwing the ball is just part of the entire mission, which involves getting the robot to start at one point on the table and make its way to the point where it tosses the ball. All that means more programming.
Haas doesn’t mind. She loves the challenge, which is one of the reasons she gives up a couple of hours after school each week for the Robotics Club.
“I love that it uses technology,” she explained. “But you don’t just play with it. We get to make the robot move and do something. What’s great about this is it involves technology and it lets you be creative in how you use it and do things.”
In the end, Chesnut said that’s what the club is all about: getting kids excited about learning and creating.
“When people probably think about programming, they see people just sitting around a computer, but it’s really an amazingly creative process,” she said. “It’s something kids can learn and make and create things with. Look at these kids. They’re excited and just doing amazing things.”