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Laptops & Robots: Technology Delivers Hands-on Science for 'High-Risk' Students

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About 10 years ago, AEC's Phoenix Academy had a few extra grant dollars lying around at the end of the school year, and nobody was quite sure how to use it. "Rutherford Electric, the grant provider, asked what we'd like to do with it," recalled Melisa Alberts, middle school science and computer teacher at the Marion, NC alternative school. "We wound up using it to buy a robotics system, which we use to teach our kids about the force of motion, Newton's Law and other concepts."

The move was particularly poignant for Phoenix Academy, where the school's 20 "high-risk" students tend to learn better through hands-on application, rather than by using textbooks or traditional lessons. "We began to notice that students learned better when they could actually see that force equals mass times acceleration," said Alberts, "rather than just reading about it on paper."

Robotics Challenges
A chemist by trade and an educator for 16 years, Alberts took her hands-on approach a step further by applying for and getting yet another Rutherford Electric Membership grant. Awarded $1,199 for her "First Tech Challenge" project, Alberts said the grant will contribute to the cost of her science class participation in the FIRST-Lego League robotics program and competition.

FIRST was founded in 1989 to inspire young people's interest and participation in science and technology. Based in Manchester, NH, the 501(c)(3) not-for-profit public charity designs accessible, innovative programs that motivate young people to pursue education and career opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and math, while building self-confidence, knowledge, and life skills.

FIRST Lego League (FLL) is a global program created to get kids excited about science and technology. Geared for ages 9 through 14 (up to 16 outside of the U.S. and Canada), FLL utilizes theme-based challenges to engage kids in research, problem solving, and engineering. The cornerstones of the program are its core values, which emphasize contributions of others, friendly sportsmanship, learning, and community involvement.

Each annual Challenge has two parts, the Project and the Robot Game. Working in teams of up to 10 kids and guided by at least one adult coach, team members have about 10 weeks to build an autonomous robot that will, in 2 minutes and 30 seconds, complete pre-designed missions; analyze, research, and invent a solution for a given assignment; and create a clever presentation about their solution to perform in front of a panel of judges.

Alberts said the latest grant was born out of her frustration with the high cost of robotics equipment for the education field. Using the Cyberkids program as a guide, Alberts took it upon herself to build up Phoenix Academy's science program. "I just couldn't justify the price of the Cyberkids program, so I decided to do it on my own, using their model," Alberts said. "My hope is that we'll be able to get the needed equipment installed, and be able to use it to teach seventh and eighth graders to effectively compete in the FIRST-Lego League robotics program."

One to One
As she ramps up her school's robotics and science program, Alberts is also spearheading a project that will put a laptop computer on every student's desk. Known as One-to-One, the program will be welcomed with open arms at Phoenix Academy, which lacks a computer lab for teaching. One-to-one learning provides every student and teacher access to his or her own personal portable technology in a wireless environment, allowing students to learn at their own pace and ability levels.

Through the program, teachers create individualized education plans for each child, addressing his or her unique needs. Students use their personal devices to do research, homework, problem-solving, team projects, e-mail, and academic coursework. At the same time, they gain valuable 21st century skills that will be beneficial throughout their lives and careers.

"We're excited at the thought of being able to teach via computer," said Alberts. "Over the next few days we're rolling out the laptops to the 20 students and four teachers." The fact that teachers will also be equipped with the computers is especially critical, according to Alberts, who pointed out that today's students are technologically advanced and need assurances that their instructors do indeed "know more" than the kids themselves.

"One of the biggest problems facing educators today is the fact that kids tend to be more tech-savvy and have access to an infinite amount of information on the Web," said Alberts. "The trick is to stay ahead of them in order to continue getting that 'awe factor,' from them. I'm constantly using the Internet and the computer; I use a smart phone; and I do whatever else I can to stay one step ahead of them."

To help students make the connection between science and technology education and "real world" applications, Alberts schedules periodic field trips to a local factory that uses robotics automation to build its products. "That way, students know that the skills they're learning at our school can be used to apply for a job," said Alberts. "It gets them thinking about the workforce and their place in it."

Determined to introduce those students to more advanced science and technology applications in the future, Alberts said she sees a time when all education is computer-based and delivered in an engaging fashion that gets students interested in learning. "The days of the pen and paper will be gone soon, and so will the days of textbook learning," asserted Alberts. "In fact, my grandchildren may not ever use a pen and paper. By then, everything will be online and accessed at the student's individual pace."

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