2004-02-13 / Columnists

School Scope

Have Robot, Will Travel
By Norman Scott

We hear that the new Department of Education curriculum is referred to as "progressive" because it is based on concepts developed at Columbia’s Teachers College. Some have attacked it as not being rigorous enough claiming that a more structured environment is necessary for many of the children in New York City. Others (me included) have criticized the insane way the curriculum has been implemented. (More of that another time).

Many TC theories are based on the idea of "constructivism," a concept I’ve never quite gotten a handle on, but supposedly it is a means of giving children an opportunity to construct their own knowledge. This type of teaching/learning needs time to be nurtured, time we don’t have in today’s schools where testing is the end all and be all. It also requires small groups of children to work with, also impossible under a DoE that would rather spend money on staff developers and bureaucrats than on reducing class size.

In the midst of all this chaos, some schools have managed to carve out opportunities for some form of constructionist education.

Two years ago, as a technology support person from District 14, I found out about a nationwide tournament where children compete by building robots. I recruited two teams and was so fascinated by the event that after retirement I became a volunteer (the entire operation is mostly staffed by volunteers) as the director of registration and team recruitment for NYC First, a nonprofit organization started by legendary inventor Dean Kamen. Kamen’s goal is to use math and science to create a sporting event type atmosphere.

On February 7, seventy-nine teams, each consisting of up to ten 9-14 year olds, gatheredA0at Riverbank State Park (145 Street and Riverside Drive) for the annual FIRST LEGO Mid dle/Elementary School Robotic Challenge (some ninth graders from high schools also took part.) This year’s Challenge was "Mission Mars," based on the rovers currently racing around the Red Planet. (With two rovers, alternate side of the street parking rules have been instituted on Mars. Can’t you see theA0 rovers waking up one morn ing to find a NYC Dept. of Transportation parking ticket on their windshields?) Riverbank State Park is a massive facility with a gym that easily accommodated the close to 1000 kidsA0 and hundreds of adults that at tended.

Most of the teams came from NYC schools, both public and private, some from Long Island and a few from computer clubhouses and after school clubs. The contest is open to anyone with a few 9-14 year olds hanging around.

For most of the day the gym was jumping. Signs promoting the teams were waving all over the place. Some teams showed up in force with chanting cheerleaders supporting their efforts and many parent supporters in tow. A DJ blasted music and commentary. A jumbo TV screen showed live feeds of the games. Students and their teacher/coaches gathered around to await their scores. The "pit" where the kids stayed at their tables between rounds became one giant picnic area. Children from all parts of the city and all kinds of schools mingled freely, with kids from some of the most exclusive private schools in Manhattan eating and playing side by side with public school students.

The "playing field" is an 8x4 table with a mat simulating the Mars landscape.A0 A number of structures are placed on the mat such as rocks that have to be moved and a launcher that has to be nudged to launch a sphere into the air. Each task has a corresponding real world aspect. Each of the 16 tables had two referees wearing standard striped "referee" shirts, lending an air of realism.

In addition to the robotic aspects teams also had the option of putting together a 3-5 minute research presentation about Mars, which was ob ser ved by teams of judges in a separate competition.

An offshoot of the high school robotics competition (taking place at River bank from March 25-27, bothA0 events organized by NYC First) this junior version uses robots built out of LEGO blocks with a built-in microprocessor to complete a number of tasks in each two and one half minute round.A0 They earn points for each of the four rounds. One of the interesting aspects of the event is FIRST’s attempt to downplay the competitive aspects as much as possible . While the highest point total wins a trophy made out of LEGO blocks (the Robot Performance Award) the rest of the awards are given out for things such as Team Spirit, Teamwork, and Robot Design (even if your robot flounders a great concept counts for something).A0 The Director’s Award is the top prize, given for a combination of factors encompassing five key elements of the Technical and Team Performance Awards,A0 Robot Design, Robot Performance Score, Research Presentation, and Teamwork.

The Against All Odds Award is the most interesting. Last year a team with one member, a special ed. child from an East New York school, won the award. This year Chris Gooding, a teacher from the Bronx and a first year participant, showed up with 2 kids. Chris didn’t get his materials until the last few weeks due to purchase order snafus at the DoE (what else would we expect?). But his late start didn’t stop his kids as they built a competitive robot. But there were technical problems on game day. The awards ceremony was winding down and Chris was telling me what a great time he and the kids had despite all the problems and how this was a beginning of a long-running commitment when we heard his kids called down to accept the trophy for Against All Odds. The judges had recognized their effort (I know in many circles all that counts is winning). The smiles on the faces of those two kids were enormous as the hundreds of people in the audience cheered for them.A0A0A0A0

The day after the event we received this letter from one of the teachers:
I just wanted to express my appreciation for an amazing tournament yesterday. My students were so excited to be part of it and they’re already planning for next year. I also wanted to recognize that your group of volunteers contained some of the most outstanding mentors to children that I’ve ever worked with. It was truly a kid-friendly environment, and with that many kids, it wasn’t easy. So, congratulations and thanks for the memories!

Next year we hope to hold borough events followed by a gala citywide tournament. Look for it at a school near you. Information on FIRST LEGOcan be found at:A0 http://www.Nusfirst.org/jrobtcs/.

Postscript: Those "educators" at the DoE had zero interest and zero involvement in the event despite repeated pleas to provide some level of financial support (like maybe actually paying teachers even a pittance for all the time they were putting in) or helping schools out with the registration fees and materials. In fact, some schools that tried to pay with purchase orders had such difficulties they had to drop out.

Let’s agree to never use the terms "progressive" and "NYC Depart ment of Education" in the same sentence again.

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