Local Schools Get Robotics Experience at Armstrong

Armstrong students are taking part in an ongoing initiative to spark local middle and high school students' interest in science technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

With the help of a few professors, student volunteers hosted a robotics programming competition and showcase recently in Armstrong's Science Center.

The event was an extension of the original OssaBest project—an initiative funded by the National Science Foundation, which gave students from Savannah Arts Academy, Islands High School, Bartlett Middle School and Coastal Middle School an opportunity to explore Ossabaw Island.

Armstrong professors Ashraf Saad, Joy Reed and Edward Strauser enlisted some of their students to help repurpose this year's program to focus on robotics programming in the classroom.

“Over the past eight months, we've given teachers the resources and technical support needed to offer their students hands-on robotics programming experience by establishing after-school robotics clubs,” said Saad, professor of computer science.

The robotics competition and showcase was a culmination of those efforts.

Students were presented with a story problem and given two hours to program their robots to complete a series of tasks. Bonus points were awarded to students for creativity and writing programming codes independently, without calling on their teachers or graduate assistants for help.

“The idea is to get them interested in computer science and what it has to offer,” said sophomore Danielle Zuercher, who co-wrote the code for the story problem and helped her peers judge the competition. “We're trying to simplify it for them. Keep them engaged and pass on what we know.”

Students worked in small groups, often by trial-and-error, instructing Intellibrain-bots, Lego Mindstorms and Scribblers to follow lines, detect objects and stop at specified distances. After being judged on those three concepts, the students had an opportunity to showcase other program codes they wrote for their robots throughout the semester.

“The competitive aspect was just a motivational tool,” said graduate assistant Ryan Kroutil. “We really just want to evaluate their ability to think logically and break problems down into manageable pieces.”

To do this, social scientist and program evaluator Tom McKlin administered surveys to the participating students before and after the competition.

“It's a content and knowledge assessment,” said McKlin. “After a semester of programming robots, are they smarter? Do they know more? Do they have the confidence and motivation to persist in computer science-related fields?”

The hope of everyone involved with this project is yes, that one day these impressionable students will pursue careers in STEM fields, making them more competitive in the science-driven job market of the 21st century.

“It starts with early exposure through clubs and competitions such as these,” said Amy Durden, physics teacher and robotics club sponsor for Savannah Arts Academy. “It's nice to see Armstrong reach out to the community and be invested in the future of our kids.”