Igniting Curiosity in Young Minds

Discover The Robotics Program Equipping Students With New Skills

Robotics and STEM integration programs serve up real-world problems to students who talk, test, and tinker their way toward solutions.

Just ask Nik Gruber, a Flinn Scholar who began his foray into robotics as a fourth-grader at Sunrise Drive Elementary School.

“It helped me with problem-solving skills, research, and teamwork skills, which weren’t that good in fourth or fifth grade,” Nik said of joining the First Lego League, a program for students in grades 4 to 9. Today, Nik is a senior at the University of Arizona who is aiming to earn a graduate degree in Chemical Engineering in Spring 2025 by way of an accelerated master’s program.

“I’ve always been good at math so (the experience) didn’t really point me more toward engineering than I was already headed, but it gave me a lot of skills that a lot of engineers do not actually have,” Nik said, adding that, “in the robotics program we had to do skits for a research project and that was really helpful towards my public speaking and research in general.”

Noah Mickey-Colman, a STEM Integration Specialist at Ventana Vista Elementary School, said that his mission is to “ignite curiosity and empower young minds” to believe that they can solve any problem. “I am motivated by preparing students for a world where technology and empathy can go hand in hand,” he said, adding that his young students often surprise him by assigning feelings to their mechanical friends and enjoy cheering on a robot that is “struggling.”

An example of a First Lego League team project last year examined the challenge of energy efficiency. Through research, students discovered that more than half of the energy produced by solar cells is wasted and does not get used, Mickey-Colman said, resulting in what is referred
to as a Duck Curve — a graphical representation of the problem.

“This team, The Duckbusters, discovered the best way to combat this problem is to get people to move their energy consumption to off peak hours during the day when the sun is out. The Duckbusters created a
video game that people could play to educate themselves on this problem and its solutions,” Mickey-Colman noted.

“The growth of my students is my greatest reward,” Mickey-Colman said. “I love the look in a child’s eyes when they build their first robot or learn something that they are excited by. It is magical.”

That same excitement for this type of teaching and learning is what drove Charlotte Ackerman to do a deep dive into the possibilities about 25 years ago. “I started developing the robotics program in the district in 1998 when the first Lego Mindstorms kit was released. I read about it in the New York Times, but the entire inventory sold out within weeks - mainly to engineers.” Ackerman had also read Seymore Papert’s book “Mindstorms” and designed a pilot project based on the book’s concepts for teaching and learning with interactive computer technology. She received a grant from the Sunrise Drive Elementary Family & Faculty Organization and tested it with the gifted students with the promise that if it worked as she thought it would, she would expand it to the whole fifth grade.

Ackerman said that over the years the programs have been fine-tuned and have grown in size and popularity, and now children from K-12 at CFSD16 schools have the opportunity to participate in regional, state, and national tournaments. “Six years ago, I started a First Tech Challenge team at CFHS because so many students over the years have asked to be able to continue. The team has won multiple awards in state competitions, and all of the team’s 18 graduates have gone on in Computer Science and Engineering.”

Nik Gruber is one of those students, and he said Coach Ackerman, as he refers to her, was one of his first teachers in elementary school and a familiar face when he ventured into his first robotics experience as a fourth-grader. “We go way back,” he said of Ackerman. “In ninth grade I aged out of First Lego League, and when I was in 10th grade me, my friends, and Coach Ackerman co-founded the First Tech Challenge team in the district and I participated until 12th grade” Nik said, adding that in his off-year between grades 9 and 10, he mentored youngsters in the FLL.

“Robotics competition involves students in real world, collaborative problem-solving," said Ackerman, proving just how pivotal this program is in helping students grow to their fullest potential.

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