NEW SWEDEN, Maine — A new piece of the curriculum at New Sweden School has students in grades 4-8 working extra hard in their science class the first four days in the week. On Friday, students have the opportunity to build and program their own robots.
Since the start of the school year, students of Ernie Easter’s science classes on Fridays have had the opportunity to build robots using special Lego kits.
“We know we’re learning — we’re just having fun in the process,” said eighth-grader Noah Margeson. “It feels more like playing because … it’s Legos,” he said. “That’s the easiest explanation.”
The new robotics program at the New Sweden School was formed thanks to a grant through the Perloff Family Foundation, which allowed the school to purchase the Lego robots, and the Educator’s Summer Camp at the Maine School of Science and Mathematics, where Easter and New Sweden’s teaching principal Laurie Spooner learned how, exactly, they would be using the robotics.
“Neither of us really knew anything about the robotics, and we came back having a pretty good fundamental understanding of what to do and how to [teach the] program,” Easter said. She noted that the building came easy to the two educators, but the programming aspect was a bit more challenging.
Introducing the robots into the classrooms started by having students build basic three-wheeler type robots, and the first programming challenge was making the robots travel around a square by themselves. In the following weeks, Easter would put a challenge up on the board every Friday, and students would be charged with programming their robots to stop, turn around or turn around when they hit a wall.
Easter said he was confident that the robotics program has been consistent every week, “because the kids wouldn’t let me miss a week. … Instead, I get ‘can we do it more often?’”
When sixth-grader John O’Meara first heard about the new science lessons this fall, it grabbed his attention.
“I thought it was going to be an interesting thing, rather than just doing normal science, to be doing something different,” he said. “I expected it was going to be easier and a lot less hands-on stuff — more like a toy than an actual learning device.”
O’Meara and Margeson were paired up to work on a robot together, which seemed to be working out well; Margeson likes the building, and O’Meara likes the coding.
Their first robot was “simple,” Margeson said.
“They’re calibrated to do one thing, but it’s usually just for the motor itself and not for the whole robot, so there’s a little bit of weight on there, and it’s going to throw it off a bit — so you have to get it right to the precise settings,” Margeson explained.
Make no mistake, the robotics work is challenging, and both Margeson and O’Meara said they’ve been frustrated at different points — but both agree they’re much better at it than when they started.
When it comes to teaching the fourth- and fifth-graders, sometimes Easter has to change his lesson plan.
“There’s an incredible amount of math that goes along with this, and the math is, at times, a higher level than fourth- and fifth-graders normally see,” the teacher said.
In January, the students were measuring distance by the number of rotations the motors of their robots made — which meant students had to figure out the circumference of the wheels.
“And if you’re doing it by time, you know that if you go 10 feet in 10 seconds, you have one foot per second … but if I increase or decrease my speed, what will that do to the amount of distance I follow?” Easter said with a smile. “These are some of the challenges they’ve been doing over the past few weeks — that’s hard math.”
He’s even had to teach the younger robotic techs about decimals because some of the math requires calculating down to the hundredth.
Earlier this year, when Dave and Sandy Perloff visited the school to see the progress on the robots, they noticed that there weren’t enough robots. Some work groups were three-to-a-robot.
“They sent us two more kits,” Easter said. Then the school bought four more. Neither the students nor the robots are showing any signs of slowing down anytime soon. There’s no question in Easter’s mind that the robotics lessons are a perfect fit in his classroom.
“Higher level math, problem solving, the whole aspect of ‘think like an engineer,’” he said. Thinking like an engineer — where the answer isn’t as simple as right or wrong — has been a new experience for the youths.