Kindergartner Akenti Wheeler has learned all about balance, levers and fulcrums by building a seesaw in her robotics class at Valley Cottage Elementary School.
Classmate Emil Radoncic can explain the theory behind the wheel and axle and similar design principles after having built a model car with tiny plastic bricks in the same class.
“We’re exposing them to the vocabulary, to the basic principles of engineering,” said Anna Marie Giuffre, their teacher. “They’re like little sponges and they’re not intimidated by it.”
Nyack schools introduced robotics to middle-school students last year as an after-school class, then moved it into the classroom this year as a special component of the technology course.
The program was so successful that its coordinator, Art Browne, wanted it available to all students. So this year, robotics was introduced into kindergarten, with plans to eventually make it a component from kindergarten through 12th grade.
“It’s an integral part of math and science, with more hands-on and they get to do some competitions with it. It involves a whole new level of excitement,” Browne said. “We get a lot of great feedback from the parents. We’re having a great time.”
Creating an elementary-grade robotics course and finding someone to oversee it took some study, since nothing formal was easily accessible as it is in the older grades. Schools Superintendent Valencia Douglas called on Helen Davies, who had just retired as a fourth-grade teacher. The district wanted a program that followed state science and math standards and that could be integrated throughout the school day.
Davies said she researched what was available for young children and helped put together a curriculum that focused on engineering principles and architectural theories, ordinarily not part of the average kindergarten curriculum. Working with balance, levers, wheels and bridge structure usually is first introduced in third or fourth grade, she said.
She liked the idea of working with very young children, although she wasn’t sure how the course would play out.
“Little ones are very egocentric,” she said. Getting youngsters to work in teams, as many engineers do, worried her. So did translating sophisticated concepts into their simplest terms. She persevered, looking for similar programs she could borrow, eventually creating her own curriculum.
“It’s really to get the children at a very young age to start thinking in a scientific mode, thinking like a little engineer but using very, very simple concepts. They design, build and follow patterns. You really see them working collaboratively,” she said.
All 240 kindergartners in the district participate in robotics, although she has divided the projects by building. Davies said she was having a great time, calling her students her “little engineers.”
“I’m just having a blast. They’re very inquisitive and full of knowledge,” she said. “I use all the correct vocabulary. They’ll get into sixth grade with a very good basis of science and engineering.”
The students use proper terms for what they are learning, including the proper terms for the little bumps on their plastic building blocks: studs. While learning about levers, they examined objects that operate on that principle, from scissors to bottle openers. Once they understood levers, the students experimented with weight and what happened when one side of a lever balanced on a fulcrum had more weight on it than another.
“It’s very cool,” Davies said. “I just did the wheel and axle. It’s all hands-on with them. And they relate it to everything; Heelys (shoes with built-in skate wheels), doorknobs and Ferris wheels. It’s just incredible. To get them to stop is really hard.”
Students studying building and architectural concepts also use familiar things, like the story of the “Three Little Pigs” to discuss structure and strength. She’s trained the kindergarten teachers along with the students, and the concepts carry through to all the curriculum, Davies said.
“Eventually, this will be (taught) right through the fifth grade so by the time they enter the middle school, they will have the knowledge of engineering concepts,” she said. “Ultimately, we want to produce more engineering students.”
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