This is one of many blog posts that have been rattling around in my head

I finally decided to just get it out so I could have more room for other stuff

For those of you who may not know, I teach elementary school and have done so for almost 30 years now. I’ve taught almost every grade. As the year ended last May, I was planning on returning to my little third grade classroom, for another year. While motoring across country (it’s a MINI thing) I got a call.  I was offered a change. Same school, but different job. The last time something like this happened it didn’t end up as I would have wanted, so I did seriously consider all my options before saying “yes.” Most people I talked to at the time thought I was crazy not to take the job, but calling me crazy isn’t anything new.  As of right now, I have spent a school year as the “Robotics & Design” teacher, working with all 700+ students from grades 1-6.  What does that really mean? I don’t know, I’ve been running since August and hope that by writing this all down, I’ll figure out exactly what I did.

I tell people that if you had told my third grade self that some day he would be teaching robotics- I think his brain would have exploded.  Since this is pretty much not taught in every school, there isn’t much to go on when it comes to formal standards or even curriculum.  So basically I was flying blind with only the plans from the previous teacher, which I didn’t see until after school had started, as a guide.  With just a short time to set up my classroom (lab- *giggle*) my first goal was to make sure the kids knew “things are different now.”  If it looks like I didn’t do a lot please remember I only see the kids, at most, 36 times the entire year.  With a week between each class, some time is spent reviewing/recalling what we did the previous week.

I started off with a few classes of drawing (something I plan to do more of) then I assessed (educationspeak so I sound smart) each grade to see what they could already do.  The older grades had a good grasp of some basic programming and building techniques.  Many of the younger kids had very little experience with anything I was presenting, so a clean slate.

In first grade we basically learned how to build.  How to make sure that you have enough detail in your design so someone doesn’t ask what it is.  How to be pretty sure whatever you build won’t fall apart.  This along with some initial programming using LEGO WeDo.  LEGO WeDo is a simple drag & drop programming language the works with some basic elements using a motor, and two sensors.  I had the first graders just get something to move… and then upped the game by asking them to program something that moves in a certain way.  I forgot how excited first graders get-  it was pure joy.

Second grade I did some review and extensions of the first grade projects. Instead of just programming they were building using WeDo- then programming… After that we did a bit of engineering with pullback motors & cars.  an Introduction to potential & kinetic energy.

Having taught third grade for the past two years you would think it would be easy… not so much.  It was more difficult than I thought to address the transition between primary & intermediate grades.  I think if I were to count how many lessons I tried (and failed) the majority of them would be in third grade.  Room for growth.

Fourth grade we spent time building and programming LEGO Mindstorms NXT robots.  Starting with a simple maze and then adding more difficulty by adding one sensor to have the robot accomplish the maze autonomously.  We ended with an attempt for a LEGO Sumo competition, there really wasn’t enough time to get it done properly, especially with my inexperience.

Fifth grade started with robots as I wanted to see what they knew, so they also had the maze challenge. and then something new… CAD (aka Computer Aided Design).  more on that later.

Sixth grade I felt should be able to handle a real challenge- I might have been overly optimistic.  I had planned that sixth graders would demonstrate their knowledge by creating a module for a Great Ball Contraption.  After a some time I had them work on CAD also.

CAD? I wrote a proposal to the FORUM Credit Union Foundation to purchase three 3D printers.  After doing some quick research I decided to go with New Matter, a new company that produced a very economical solution.  After a bit of a wait as the district bureaucracy to check all the boxes they needed I started printing.

5th & 6th grade students used Tinkercad to create basically anything they wanted (size was the only constraint).  The students went through a self directed tutorial on how to design, which taught me a lot. I was shocked to see that they ignored the written instructions, and just looked at the sample picture, then tried to remake it.  They could understand why it wouldn’t work… after some frustration most kids had the basics.  By the end of the year, every student had the opportunity to print one thing.  Once I saw how long it would actually take I let the kids that wanted to redesign their project and print it again.

After school I “coached” the competitive robotics teams (FIRST LEGO League & VEX IQ).  What’s the difference?  in FIRST the students have a number of presentations (Core Values, Design, & Project) then they must build and program a robot to accomplish a number of tasks on a field.  Each task is worth different points.  OUr FLL team consisted of 6th graders who had done this before so I let those more experienced FLL kids do a lot on their own, providing assistance when asked.  Hoping I could learn from them. That wasn’t such a good idea.  The day of the tournament (there is only one) there were some complications…  After the season was over these kids were invited to continue staying after school and work on projects of their choosing.  They had a lot of fun, working on various projects.  If they only knew how to clean up after themselves.

VEX IQ – The biggest difference between VEX IQ & FLL is that in VEX IQ the students build and then drive the robot with another team. Students can present a STEM Research project and/or a design notebook.  They also can program their robot to work autonomously. They are only required to build & drive. Everything else is important, but if you are just starting out it’s nice to only have to focus on figuring out the robot.   There is a different game each year.  There are a number of tournaments throughout the season so the kids can redesign their robot if it wasn’t successful and try again. The focus is working together- on the field both teams are working for the best combined score.  This confuses people at their first competition.  My goal for VEX IQ was to win at least once… I was hoping we could earn a spot at the State Tournament.  This year I started focusing on the Research Project & Design Notebook, we did win awards in both areas, which earned one of our teams an invitation to State.  I was very proud of all the kids- I just kept asking  myself “What more could I have done?”

What did I learn?  I have a lot to learn.  I’ve already gone to a workshop on great ball contraptions & LEGO Sumo.  I’ve also attended a full day of engineering education presentations, which has helped me consider other options my class.  I’ll finish out the off season with a three day “rookie” VEX IQ coaches workshop. My goals for the classroom this year deal with a focus on the engineering design process, but mostly on the design portion… aka drawing.  We shall see…

Here’s the big idea- I’m actually going to ask for… help with the robotics teams.  I can’t do both of them without some help.  OK, I proved I could do them, just not well enough to be successful.  I’m hoping to have someone (a parent, another teacher, a super-intelligent wombat) help the kids on the non-robotics portions of the competitions.  For most people that’s the least terrifying part.  Present your ideas on a topic that you researched.  It’s what teachers assign all the time.  I just don’t have time to do everything, which is really hard to admit.

So I spent the year “playing with LEGO” that’s what most people say I do now.  Oh well,  I’m looking forward to starting back and getting better at “playing.”  I know it will take a lot of work, but I willing to try.