CUTLER, Maine — Retired U.S. Navy engineer Rob French was on his knees on the floor of the hallway of Bay Ridge Elementary School on Tuesday morning, giving a couple of pupils advice about the physics of lift.
The challenge Tuesday morning for teams of students in grades five through eight was to build a robot that could propel a plastic ball down the hallway. The competition was fierce: Some pupils built arms that struck the ball like golf clubs, while others used a rubber tire as a mallet.
French was helping one team get a little lift on their ball to optimize their effort. As each ball surpassed its earlier distance, a cheer went up from the children and staff.
“They don’t know it, but they are learning the process of thinking,” teacher Wayne Peters said as he oversaw the building, the thinking and the competition.
“Who is Team Two?” he asked.
“The machine cannot go over the line,” he said. “The ball can go all the way to Machias — but that seems unlikely.”
“No, don’t tell me in inches. Tell me in centimeters,” he said.
“How do we find the diameter of the ball?” he asked.
And the learning, while knee-deep in LEGO parts, is under way.
Robots are fun and seem almost like play to the children. But the engineering concepts behind the play are serious stuff.
“This is creative problem solving,” Peters said.
In a classroom next door, groups of students were clustered around the LEGO robotics kits, each chiming in with a theory of how to make it work.
“This was also part of the challenge,” teacher Wanda Cates said. “They had to learn the difference between playing with a toy and working as a team. This has taught them teamwork, direction and cooperation.”
Overseeing it all were Sandra and David Perloff, of the Perloff Family Foundation, based in California and Kennebunkport.
Over the past five years, the foundation, in conjunction with the Maine Community Foundation, has funded grants that enhance science and mathematics education.
By focusing on smaller, rural schools as well as Day Treatment and special education programs, the Perloffs have brought robotics to more than 30 Maine schools and four just over the Calais border in New Brunswick; half of those programs are in Washington County. The Perloffs have supplied kits that contain everything needed to build, operate and program a functional robotic vehicle.
David and Sandy Perloff’s passion for public education is so great they not only offer grants to individual educational projects, but they also visit every project they fund, not once, but twice: in January or February, and then again in April or May.
“This allows us to assess firsthand the benefits derived from our grant making, and to shape our thinking in future years,” Sandra Perloff said Tuesday.
Several years ago, as an engineer in Silicon Valley, David Perloff found himself on the winning end of a high-tech merger. The creation of the Perloff Family Foundation was the couple’s way of giving back.
David Perloff was impressed with the Cutler students since their robotics club meets before school, not as an after-school event like most other programs.
“If anyone is willing to come to school ahead of the day, that’s just wonderful,” he said.
Sandra Perloff said it was a delight to visit the schools and see how each program is being orchestrated.
“Learning should be fun,” she said. “When children are successful, they feel good about themselves.”
Perloff said she also was pleased that robotics is not gender-specific and that often the best scholastic students are not the best robotics students.
Bay Ridge Elementary School has just 50 pupils from Cutler Village, a fishing community where most earn their living from the sea. Three of the school’s eighth-graders are already fully licensed lobster fishermen.
“These children are learning what real people do with engineering,” Peters said. “They are learning that they can do it, too. This gets their minds working. We can teach them math and science, but when they ask ‘Why? For what purpose?’ we can show them in practical theory.”