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Tag, You're IT


Science teachers like Andrea Kitchen went to summer school to learn to design and build robots as teaching tools.

Five pairs of anxious "parents" hover as five brightly-colored LEGO robots lurch like awkward toddlers unsure of their direction or capabilities. Wheels fall off; bumpers drop. One robot's creator yells, "Go Slug, go, get out of there." This is the first time the computer-programmed robots have tried to navigate in a crowd.

After the mayhem, the robot design teams retreat to their computers and notebooks to work out the kinks, in preparation for the tournament to come.

They are participants in a course called "Inquiry-Based Approaches to Autonomous Robotics" at Cleveland's Case Western Reserve University, supported by a grant from HHMI. It's an erudite name for a class where people play with LEGOs, designing and building small robots to evade a larger, lumbering robot nicknamed IT, as IT tries to tag them with light. But they're doing it for a good reason; they are elementary and high school science teachers—and a couple of their students—who are learning hands-on problem-solving and how to bring science to life in their classrooms using robotics.

The course is "low floor, no ceiling," says instructor Richard Drushel, a senior research associate and adjunct biology instructor. He provides everyone with the basics and encourages them to experiment. Participants can learn as much programming as they choose and modify their robots as much or as little as they have the skill to do. "It's the design and understanding that matters," Drushel says.

They are there to learn, not to win, but the final day of class, when the robots compete, finds K-5 science teacher Sheila Hughes crawling around on her knees, shining an orange flashlight at her robot. She's testing the light sensor, an element critical for keeping their "toddler" safe from IT. Hughes uses her knee as an obstacle to see if the robot's sensing and backup functions are working well.

Hughes and her teammate, third grade teacher Andrea Kitchen, joined the class with no knowledge of computer programming. By the final day, they are grinning with excitement at what they've learned. They plan to use robotics kits to introduce their students to diagram reading, multitasking, simple machines, and concepts such as friction, inertia, and gravity.

Karen Krenzel, an anatomy and physiology teacher, and Lorna Coffey, who teaches physical science, are both from a high school in an economically challenged Cleveland suburb. They are concerned about how to find the money to give their students a chance to build robots. "We know it's worthwhile," says Krenzel. "We'll have to find a way to use it down the road."

Each robot is about the size of a loaf of bread, built with red, yellow and blue LEGO blocks. Their designers are fiddling constantly with one part or another, trying to solve programming and construction puzzles that may prevent their robots from escaping IT. As they labor, the teachers also struggle with feelings of frustration and inadequacy, which they say is giving them fresh understanding and empathy for their students.

Matthew Crowley, a high school student, is probably the most skilled robot-builder of the lot. Familiar with programming, he designed his school's web site. He gladly shares his expertise, and even he finds the course challenging. "I think I know what will happen," he explains, "but there's always some quirk."

Crowley's teammate, Jason Weaver, is a physics and chemistry teacher who says he has picked up a new approach to teaching from the course. He plans to design experiments that encourage students to draw on their own resourcefulness. "That way they'll learn to solve problems, and I'll be there to advise and facilitate the rough spots," Weaver says.

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Jim Keeley
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