Cultivating the 'ah ha' moment with robotics

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HINSDALE, N.H. — Preparing children for the future takes a commitment from their community, and in Hinsdale, that commitment is evident in student participation in robotics classes.

"Kudos to the town," said Ann Freitag, principal at Hinsdale Middle/High School. "They really wants their kids to learn technology and how to use it."

The robotics courses taught at the school are hands-on learning programs that combine science, technology, engineering and math with real-world learning concepts using Lego Mindstorms EV3 Robotics and Parallax Microcontrollers.

"This community has been incredibly supportive," said Diane Steeves, who teaches the robotics classes. "They understand we are preparing the students. Whether they go to work after high school or go to college, they will have the skills they need."

Steeves' background in computer technology has deep roots. She used to help her ex-husband review products for computer magazines and she also home-schooled her children, who were also passionate about computer technology.

She transitioned into education as a paraeducator and while supporting students and teachers in Winchester, she realized more and more students were needing one-on-one help with computers.

"I started taking classes at Keene State College and then Franklin Pierce to get qualified as a teacher," said Steeves. Eventually she started teaching computers in Winchester before moving to the Hinsdale School District in 2014. By working with the students and observing their interests she was able to develop courses that the students are excited to take.

"I wish this class didn't have to end," said sixth-grader William Tuller, who liked to tinker with electronics and computers but wasn't a "full-fledged" enthusiast until his first week of class. "I got a lot more passionate about it."

Nikia Saari-Rosa and Olivia Maillet, also sixth graders, were making a lifting device in the robotics class on Thursday.

"It's something we saw on a video," said Saari-Rosa.

Both girls said they weren't sure they would pursue robotics as they got older, but they understood the importance of the class.

"We get to learn engineering and how to build stuff," said Maillet.

Steeves said the coursework is a synthesis of different disciplines combined with student interest and a little direction from her and Robotics Club co-advisors Sarah Burgess, a special education teacher, and Justin Therieau, the school's network administrator.

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"The class is an awesome way to integrate technology and learning," said Steeves.

Burgess said facilitating student collaboration as they work on their projects is crucial to brain development in this age group.

"Kids do better with hands-on learning, building and watching something come together, whether working with classmates or on their own," she said.

And those skills are what employers are looking for, said Burgess.

"People need to work together as a team," she said. "Employers are looking for team players."

Freitag said Steeves embodies that concept.

"She really nurtures the collaborative relationship of the 21st-century workplace," said Freitag, who said the interpersonal skills the students are learning in the robotics classes "are for life."

"Mostly, they are learning from each other," said Steeves. "I love seeing them help each other."

The students are also involved with extracurricular competitions, with the high schoolers traveling to the University of New Hampshire in April for the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition New England District Championship.

Next year, said Steeves, she hopes to introduce a drone science class, in which students will program aerial drones and learn aerodynamics and the math that goes with it.

"Jobs are changing, becoming more technical, and employers are demanding those skills," said Steeves. While sixth-graders are still many years away from joining the workforce, she said, learning team work and critical thinking is as important as understanding math and science. Encouraging a sense of wonder is also important, she said.

"I have so much fun watching them experience those 'ah ha' moments," said Steeves.

Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 151, or raudette@reformer.com.


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