Dan Jackson, instructor in astronomy, physics and mathematics at Penn State Lehigh Valley, has a passion for teaching people of all ages, including fourth and fifth graders through the use of robots.
Every Thursday for the past six weeks, Jackson has been running a LEGO Robotics after-school program at Roosevelt Elementary School in the Allentown School District. This program was administered through the Center for Business Development and Community Outreach at Penn State Lehigh Valley, with funding coming from a Bosch corporation grant. This program was run at no cost to Roosevelt, which is a high-needs school and part of the United Way’s Community Schools program.
“I really enjoy teaching fourth and fifth graders because they have such a pure joy about learning, and because this is the age where the seeds of the future scientists they could one day become really get planted in their minds,” said Jackson. “I hope that the excitement they experience now stays with them for life. STEM learning is based on problem solving, spatial reasoning and having fun. The Lego robots really help build up these basic skills in a fun and challenging way without being too difficult to master.”
But really it was the elementary school students themselves who got the ball rolling on this program’s inception.
“Some students approached me requesting programming involving robotics. I had them draft a proposal and then I approached Doug from Penn State Lehigh Valley,” said Nashira Williams, community school coordinator at Roosevelt.
Williams knew Doug Antonioli, director of the Penn State Lehigh Valley Writing Project, from the United Way’s Summer Learning Coalition. Within a month, Antonioli was able to pull this program together for the school. This is the first on-site robotics program Penn State Lehigh Valley has run, usually the robotics programming is reserved just for Summer Youth Camps held at the Lehigh Valley campus.
"It's great to see the kids troubleshooting and rethinking their work. That's what's so great about outreach like this. We have the opportunity to give students the chance to explore their potential and set them on their way to becoming the next great thinkers our society needs,” said Antonioli.
Twenty-four students participated in the after-school program and many were chosen through teacher recommendations.
“This is a great opportunity for our students. It is the first time we were able to offer them something like this,” said Williams.
A visit to the classroom during the fifth week of the after-school program showed a busy group of fourth and fifth grade students on the floor following the robots they have programmed to trace a course marked on the floor. They excitedly picked up their robots and returned to their laptop computers to make some tweaks to the programming before trying again. Jackson was seen walking around to each group to provide tips and suggestions and then was setting up races between four robots at a time.
“I like building things,” said Miguel Cordoro, a fourth grade student in the after-school program, who programmed his robot to spin around and laugh. “I had never done something like this before and now I know how to build robots. I want to be a graphic designer someday.”
Fourth-grader Matthew Miller and fifth-grader Julius Pyle were partners working on programming a robot together.
“I think computer programming is really cool,” said Pyle. “I get to see how programming works and watch our robot drive by itself.”
“Mr. Jackson is fun and explains things to us,” said Miller. “My favorite part has been learning how to program and build a robot.”
This work at Roosevelt comes as an extension of Penn State Lehigh Valley’s Summer Youth Programming, for which Bosch also contributed funds as part of another grant in support of STEM and literacy to purchase the fleet of LEGO robots. This summer Bosch funding will also support Penn State Lehigh Valley’s Center for Business Development and Community Outreach to provide summer programming and enrichment at multiple schools in the Bethlehem School District, as well as scholarships to its Summer Youth Camps.