Hands-on Learning At Its Best

“Gather ’round kids. Today you’re going to learn how to program robots.”

That’s the message that nine teachers in Savannah will be voicing to students this fall, thanks to a summer initiative combining the efforts of Armstrong’s College of Education and College of Science and Technology.

The project, an extension of Ossabest—a $1.2 million National Science Foundation grant received by Armstrong in 2007—is training teachers at Bartlett and Coastal Middle Schools, Savannah Arts Academy and Islands High School how to program educational robots, such as Mindstorm, Intellibrain and Scribbler made and sold by Lego, RidgeSoft and IPRE, the Institute for Personal Robotics in Education. The lessons they learn will be imparted to children so that they can grow to master the robots—each not much bigger that a chalkboard eraser. The ultimate goal is to foster in young students an interest in science technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

“We’re learning Java (a programming language) in the context of these robots and what we can make them do,” said Amy Durden, a Savannah Arts honors and AP physics teacher. “At the very least we want to open the children’s eyes and minds to something that they might already be interested in.”

Durden and nine other teachers spent two weeks in the Science Center on campus learning about Java programming and mathematics from Dr. Ashraf Saad, professor of computer science and Dr. Joy Reed, Armstrong chair of Mathematics. Dr. Ed Strauser, professor of Secondary, Adult and Physical Education addressed teachers’ questions related to teaching methods during the workshop. Armstrong computer science student Travis Shuff also assisted with the lectures.

In addition to the two-week long training, Armstrong is also providing new laptops and the robots. The goal is to reach as many children as possible with the material over the coming years. Emily Kroutil, a science teacher at Islands High School, will take what she learns in during the workshop and teach 50 students the basic concepts of programming in two classes of 25 students this fall. The other participating teachers will return to their schools to establish robotics clubs to start building a foundation to attract children to STEM careers.

“Armstrong is giving us a package that we can re-deliver to students and providing us with training, tech support and student support,” said Kroutil. “Without Armstrong there’s no way we could be able to implement something like this.”

As kids easily master the use of computer software at many levels, both Kroutil and Durden expressed a desire to have children learn what is behind the software and computer games they use every day. “We want to get them thinking about this from a different perspective,” said Durden.

“The ultimate objective is to impart knowledge of programming and computing to enable and motivate students to pursue a computing-related field of study,” said Saad.