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Robotics workshop teaches Manlius Pebble Hill students science, engineering and more

DeWitt, NY — Zachary Sussman, a sixth-grader at Manlius Pebble Hill school in DeWitt, knew he’d have to make some adjustments to his Lego robotics car design in order for it to go faster.

“When I opened the kit and saw the design they gave us I knew the way to change the speed would be to change the gears,” he said. “So we used a bigger gear on ours on the top, but kept it light overall. That way, ours won all three races.”

About 125 MPH students in grades 6, 7 and 8 spent their science classes this week building Lego robotics cars, which they raced 10 feet down a track using a controller. The robotics lesson is designed to get students thinking like engineers, and in doing so combine the learning of science, technology, engineering and math, said MPH science teacher Sue Foster, who is coordinating the workshops.

Many schools like MPH are emphasizing STEM education as a way for students to get an edge in the world and be prepared for jobs that emphasize these skills. The National Science Foundation estimates that 80 percent of jobs created in the next decade will require math or science skills.

“We are infusing our curriculum with the STEM theme,” Foster said. “While these subjects have been taught separately in the past, the idea now is to integrate them with each other.”

The robotics workshops are examples of this. They teach kids problem-solving skills, how to make predictions and how to think like an engineer, she said. The students learn to design and build something and then make adjustments to it to correct design flaws.
For example, the motor on Sussman’s car kept popping off so his team solved that problem by holding it down with a rubber band.

“We learned how to adapt quickly to a situation and how to make something work better,” he said. “We also learned to adjust the design. We took all the extra stuff off our car because it made it heavy.”

Lucy Turnipseed, another sixth-grader, said building the cars is the most fun she’s ever had in science class. “You don’t get to build a car in class every day,” she said. “I like seeing what it would be like to be an engineer, and figuring out that changing the gears and taking off some extra pieces helps your car move faster.”

Sussman said while building a fast race car was rewarding, he enjoyed the chance to come up with his own ideas. “I like using technology in creative ways,” he said. “You have to be a little risky in situations like this, because there is always something that can make your project one percent better.”