For students at West Virginia schools, “team activities” today mean more than just basketball, football or baseball — for some, it means building robots, learning to program and to write code.
Angie Scarbro, a teacher at Central Elementary whose fourth-grade son is on one of the school’s four robotics teams, said the robotics program is an opportunity for students to apply lessons from their classrooms — math, science and even communication — into real, tangible settings.
“It allows kids to find what they’re good at, and to be around other kids like them that have the same interests. That’s really important at any age — finding your niche while their using their brains,” Scarbro said. “For my son, it’s just how his brain works. It’s good we’re integrating programs like this into our schools for kids like that.”
Robotics classes are offered at many of West Virginia’s schools, and the courses evolve as the students age. In elementary school, they begin with building plastic robots and programming them with simple code to move around, lift objects and grab things. By high school, students can build massive metal robots with more complicated coding that allows them to accomplish a myriad of tasks.
At all levels, students in the robotics programs can enter competitions that pit them against other schools and teams, just like any other sport. Often at these competitions, students will work with other teams to program robots to beat obstacle courses and challenges.
“To work together as a team and collaborate — working with another person to solve a problem, that’s a real life skill, and they’re doing that while practicing math and more,” said Wendy Grant, a teacher at Nitro High School whose daughter is on Central Elementary’s robotics team. “Those are skills elementary students don’t have a lot of opportunities to develop — skills even some adults don’t have.”
The programs can also build up students’ confidence while motivating them to buy in to STEM-based learning initiatives.
“The program is pretty intense, but it’s building an interest in these types of subject from a young age, which is something we haven’t seen before,” Scarbro said. “[My son] can have a future in some kind of competitive industry in 10 or 15 years. For their generation, that’s vital — there’s no need to wait for college to learn these skills.”
Carrie Lynch-Kelley, whose fourth-grade daughter is on Ruthlawn Elementary’s robotics team, said that while her daughter is involved in sports, the program offers her opportunities more traditional leagues and activities don’t.
“It’s something she can do hands on while being a part of a team with people she likes,” Lynch-Kelley said. “I think she’s more comfortable here. This allows a lot of different types of kids to be successful, to try something new.”
Cody Clay, the robotics curriculum specialist for Kanawha County Schools, said one of the most important aspects of robotics programs and competitions is the idea that failing is just as integral as winning.
“They excel through their failures. This is a season, just like a sport, and they come back each different season remembering not how they failed, but how they improved,” Clay said.
Scarbro and Grant have seen this in action. In October, at the Central Elementary girls robotics team’s first competition, they finished in last place. Two weeks ago, at the qualifying tournament for the statewide competition on Feb. 23, the team sat at sixth place out of 62 teams.
“That’s just crazy. They’ve done so much work since October, and they were excited about it, not defeated,” Scarbro said. “Even if they drop off, or mess up — we watched one of their robots literally fall apart a few minutes ago — they’re learning so much, and I think they’re really, genuinely proud of themselves.”