NASA hosts robotics workshop for South Hill educators

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Kim Hyatt wants to promote interest in technology and mathematics among youngsters in the South Hills. She just needs several thousand dollars to do it.

Ms. Hyatt, a mom from Upper St. Clair and a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, coaches a middle-school robotics design squad called Team RobotiX. The nonprofit group recently began a campaign to raise money for distributing startup robotics kits to local schools. 

As part of the effort, Ms. Hyatt brought NASA team members to the Upper St. Clair Community and Recreation Center on June 3 to lead regional teachers in an educational workshop titled “Robots and Ratios.” Ms. Hyatt hoped the event would inspire interest in using robots to teach science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, skills and that the enthusiasm would attract donors. 

“Our goal is to say to maybe some foundations, ‘Look what impact we can have for kids in STEM, in so many different areas,’” Ms. Hyatt said. “I’m hoping by starting this, these people [attending the workshop] are going to go out, and they’re going to want to have this in their schools, they’re going to want to have this at their universities, but they’re going to need a place to be able to borrow the materials.”

Those materials are pricey, said Todd Ensign, program manager at the NASA IV and V Educator Resource Center. Mr. Ensign, who led the workshop, said a classroom set of nine LEGO NXT robots and corresponding laptops costs approximately $15,000. 

As about 35 teachers and administrators worked in pairs on those robots, trying to program them to move, Ms. Hyatt said she hoped that Team RobotiX eventually could loan out classroom sets for use in school-day and after-school instruction. 

“Our overall goal is to get these things in teachers’ hands so they can share them with students,” she said.

Two of those teachers, from the Upper St. Clair School District, sat in the center of the room at the workshop, scratching numbers on a notepad as they attempted to make their robot spin 360 degrees. Pam Dillie, a third-grade teacher at Baker Elementary School, said she and Betsy Loomis, a third-grade teacher at Streams Elementary School, wanted to learn how to incorporate robots into their math and science lessons.

“The STEM program is very big at our high school and also the middle-school level,” said Ms. Dillie, 56, of Upper St. Clair. “We want to bring it to the elementary level.”

“Hands-on robotics kids love,“ she added. “This is great for the children. They would love this.”

In the row behind Ms. Dillie and Ms. Loomis, Daniel Shelley fiddled with his robot. Mr. Shelley, a professor of education at Robert Morris University, said he came to the workshop to test out the LEGO NXT robots.

“I have the older robotics, and I teach that in my course for teachers — how to use these robotics in their elementary classrooms — and I wanted to see the latest,” said Mr. Shelley, 67, of Moon. “This is the upgrade on all the newer stuff.”

Ryan Gracey, a rising senior in the education program at Robert Morris, worked alongside Mr. Shelley. Mr. Gracey, 20, said he hoped to connect with other educators at the workshop so that they might help him to bring LEGO NXT robots to his classes in the future. 

“This would help me if I were to be in the science classroom,” said Mr. Gracey, of Green Tree. “So, I just thought it would be an interesting thing to go on and see.”

Ms. Hyatt said the workshop’s popularity indicated educators’ interest in incorporating robotics into their lessons. She said she thought the success of Team RobotiX in the Lehigh Valley Regional FIRST Tech Challenge Tournament drew people’s attention to the possibility of using robotics to teach. The team won first place and the Rookie Team Award in the competition. 

“The kids did really well,” Ms. Hyatt said. “I think that’s what sparked the community.” 

Marisa Iati: miati@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1891 or on Twitter @marisa_iati.

 


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