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Robotics bring STEM activities to DCMS classroom
Robotics pic 1
Mac Cline maneuvers one of the 12 robots in Dale Autens technology class at Dawson County Middle School. - photo by Amy French Dawson County News

"It's the claw machine all over again," said a flustered Mac Cline as he tried to maneuver his robot to pick up a hexball on the giant game board last week.

Cline and his classmates paired up and faced off against one other as their robots worked to score on the playing field.

The battling robots tucked away in the in-school suspension room at the back of Dawson County Middle School are now a part of the curriculum thanks to a mini-grant received through the Dawson County Schools charter.

"The goal with our charter money is to be innovative and creative, and we want to see things that are giving our students STEM opportunities, robotics, technology, engineering," said Nicole LeCave, director of teaching and learning for Dawson County, at the May board of education meeting when students demonstrated some of the technology at work.

Seventh grade students, under the direction of technology teacher Dale Auten, have been building robots, writing code and then operating said robots to move objects.

It is part of Vex Robotics, a program that comes with full curriculum and kits for building and battling, so to speak.

"When you look at the broad playing field, we are really good at athletics. We are really good with performing arts. We have a lot of academic recognitions, but the STEM is kind of new," said DCMS Principal Randi Sagona.

STEM, or science, technology, engineering and mathematics, is generally considered a growing need in schools and educators are looking for ways to stimulate curious kids with hands-on activities in these fields.

"One thing that we have been committed to for the past three years is expanding opportunities for all of our students in Dawson County," said Superintendent Damon Gibbs. "The Vex Robotics program at Dawson County Middle School is a great example. Dr. Sagona has met that challenge head on and, with the classroom support of Mr. Auten, our middle school students have a new and wonderful opportunity to experience hands on STEM activities. The goal for our district is to expand Vex Robotics and explore other opportunities that would get our students excited about Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics."

"The Vex Robotics is something I have had in the back of my mind for two years and when we were fortunate enough to get Mr. Dale Auten to join our staff this year, one of the first things I said was I would really like to see Vex in our school and he just jumped right on board and really took the lead with it. It is amazing," Sagona said.

After the grant was approved in November, Auten ordered the sets and had the classroom set up for the spring semester.

Students who are in the class had access to one of the 12 kits purchased via the grant.

Seventh grade technology students then took the 1,000 plus pieces and assembled the "clawbots."

"They build robots which is not as easy as it sounds because the kit comes with over a 1,000 pieces," Auten said. "They work through that themselves. If it doesn't work, they take it apart and redo it until works."

Once the robots are assembled, students can compete both individually and in teams. A large game board or field provides boundaries and on opposite ends are goals and hexballs.

Students maneuver their clawbots to pick up a hexball and take it to the other end of the field and place it in a cube-shaped goal.

It sounds easier than it is.

When students were asked if it is harder to build or to operate the robots, there was an immediate debate with students making arguments for both sides.

"Our Robotics program not only allows students to experience technology, but it enables them to begin to find areas in which they excel," Auten said. "Some students excel at building the robots, but cannot drive or program them. Others can program them, but not build them. This program also allows students to create their own robot design to meet a specific purpose, so they are exercising their creative nature and learning by doing, not by a teacher telling them."

Beyond the standard remote control operation of the robots, students also learn to write code that will allow the robots to work autonomously.

Much like building and rebuilding until they work properly, students can write the code and the rewrite as necessary to adjust the movements.

"The students program all the moves for the board and then they press the button go and it does what they tell it to," Auten said. "The little blue chip allows the students to program from their iPads and then talk via Bluetooth directly to the robot. They can change it on the fly and it goes directly to the robot's brain."

The next step for the program at DCMS is to apply for another grant to purchase more of the kits that will allow more students greater access. Then they will move on to local competitions.

There is also the goal of bringing the program to the elementary level.

For now, students in Auten's class face off with their robots on a regular basis. When one is "down" they can take time to look at the bots together to diagnose and repair the problem.

It is clear that they are not only learning, but enjoying doing it.

"This type of class is the most enjoyable. Students actively participate, learning at their own pace, while experiencing a little bit about the technical world they will enter after high school," Auten said.