Sisters, ages 7 and 8, learn the ins and outs of circuits.
Our answer to showing students how their hard work will pay off? Robotics.
The FORA robotics enrichment program is built around curricula created by TinkRWorks, an Illinois-based organization that develops STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) educational programs. The TinkRWorks curricula use hands-on activities to teach science and math concepts that are part of the Common Core curriculum that our students are supposed to master in their public schools. *To note, many people around the U.S. are not fans of Common Core (CC), and we understand why, but, for our students, CC is a lifeline because it allows us, at FORA, to rather easily pinpoint concepts missed (because of missed years of schooling) through rigorous testing.
Of course, when you say the word “robotics” to kids, they jump for joy.
“I’ve been looking forward to this so long, I couldn’t even sleep last night!” "J," a 9-year-old former refugee said.
And for us volunteers, this is so much fun to see. So, most enjoyably, each child builds, from scratch, a new robot over each twelve-week period. Yes, every child builds four, ground-up, robots each year!
Three separate age groups work on different projects. For example, this summer, kids in the first through third grades designed and built art sculptures that incorporated movement, light and sound as they learned relevant lessons on atomic theory (really!) and electricity. Meanwhile, fourth through sixth graders created and programmed small weather stations, while seventh- through tenth graders constructed remote-controlled quadcopter drones. Yes, drones. Real, high-flying drones. The skies above West Ridge looked like a B-movie space invader set for several days.
To pull all of this off, nine volunteer teachers attend several days of training every three months to learn how to build projects, code computer programs, and teach STEAM concepts, building long-term capacity within FORA itself.
“Robotics is so much more than building toys,” says Steve Bankes, head teacher for the middle-grade students. “Robotics brings together science, computers, and engineering, resulting in a small machine the student can actually communicate with through computer code. Realizing what they can create through computer code is surprisingly exciting for kids and even more so for the teacher.” (A big shout-out for all that Mr. Bankes, a big child himself, does for our children!)
Enrichment activities, especially STEAM-focused activities such as TinkRWorks’ robotics projects, are a significant addition to FORA’s focus on the fundamentals of reading and math. Building and coding give students the chance to apply their academic skills in the context of creating and having fun. Our students, all multilingual, love to demonstrate their language-learning skills by mastering the language of computers, giving them a long-awaited chance to be stars in a science classroom.
We also incorporate English lessons -- such as dissecting the word “microprocessor,” into the prefix (micro), the root (process), and the suffix (-or) -- which allows students to broaden their vocabulary as they create their own robots. This instruction in language arts will prepare students to succeed in higher-level science classes, where domain-specific reading skills -- so critical to academic success -- often prove to be the critical stumbling blocks preventing English-language learners from reaching their full potential and college success.
Research backs up the value of these types of project-based STEAM activities for students. For example, girls and minorities are more likely to persist in difficult high-school and college classes when they have experienced hands-on science activities. Participation in such projects is also associated with higher levels of growth mindset and critical thinking (Reid & Ferguson, 2014; Bertrand & Namukasa (2020).
Finally, robotics is fun. FORA’s kids need and deserve to enjoy themselves after a week of school, high-dosage tutoring, and family responsibilities. Sunday morning robotics is a chance to use their hard-won skills to express themselves and make something totally cool. Their parents, all of whom missed opportunities to hang avant-garde macaroni art on the fridge, are delighted to see the tangible evidence of what their children accomplish as a result of the hours spent honing their academic skills.
Really, what is better than building real, honest-to-goodness drones!
Reid, K. J., & Ferguson, D. M. (2014, March) "Do design experiences in engineering build a “growth mindset” in students?," 2014 IEEE Integrated STEM Education Conference, 2014, pp. 1-5, DOI: 10.1109/ISECon.2014.6891046.
Bertrand, M. G., & Namukasa, I. K. (2020, April 27). Steam education: Student learning and transferable skills. Journal of Research in Innovative Teaching & Learning. Retrieved November 4, 2021, from https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/JRIT-01-2020-0003/full/html.