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April 24, 2013

RoboCamp teaches Hillside K-4 students about technology

STEM lessons carry over after school in fun, sold-out environment

By Chris Jackett
C & G Staff Writer

» click to enlarge «
The Big D team reprograms its robot to complete a task as fourth-grader Rahul Baragur, right, works on the computer during the Deep Space Terraformers exercises April 16 at Hillside Elementary in Farmington Hills.

FARMINGTON HILLS — Although robotics clubs have only recently been catching on at local high schools in the past few years, students at Hillside Elementary are ahead of the game thanks to the RoboCamp program.

The Hillside Parent-Teacher Association brought in West Bloomfield-based Game Crazy to teach their kindergarten through fourth-grade students about robotics with hands-on activities.

“They’re just little sponges, so now is a good time to get it to them,” said June Peters, Hillside PTA secretary. “We put our heads together, and we’re the first school in the district to do it, and we sold out completely.

“They pick it up a lot easier. If it’s something they’re naturally doing on a daily basis; just think of the things they can do when they’re our age. If you start them out thinking along those lines and that’s the path they choose to take, it’s amazing the things they can do in the future.”

In multiple groups, the students handle one of two tasks, dependant on their grade. Over the four-week program, the younger kids put together the pieces of a SoccerBot robot soccer game, including a robot that kicks and one that slides side to side as a goalkeeper.

The older students work with Deep Space Terraformers, where robots have to perform a variety of tasks, such as clearing rocks and moving other items around.

“It’s a great time,” said instructor Brett Marshall, a Waterford resident. “Kids learn to build, math/science skills, team building, of course doing group projects is so much fun, so we’re getting them started younger. They all seem to have a great time.”

The robots are licensed from Carnegie Mellon University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to Game Crazy, focusing on the science, technology, engineering, mathematics, or STEM, education initiatives that have been receiving increased attention statewide.

“They’re able to learn so much,” said instructor Matthew Wilkinson, a Hazel Park resident. “An adult, it’s harder to get registered with them. And then once they have that foundation, they can build on it. And they can get excited about something like this and realize that stuff like math and science and technology are real cool and really fun.”

Stacy Buatti, Hillside PTA president, said she is a proponent of bringing new experiences to children, and expanding the technological learning after school hours is a bonus.

“Almost all of our classrooms have Smart Boards with clickers and remotes. We wanted to extend their day by having technology here,” Buatti said. “I think it’s really important to really keep that momentum going that so much is dedicated towards that.

“I think it’s also important that these boys and girls are in a group setting that still has that face-to-face relationship with each other where they can talk to each other and say, ‘Hey, where did this go wrong?’ Our fourth-graders over there have been programming and reprogramming, and it’s only taken them about an hour.”

RoboCamp is just one program of many — such as basketball, math and Lego clubs — the PTA offers throughout the year.

“We do so much stuff,” Buatti said. “Between the 550 students here, there has to be something that fits for them. We are trying to work with the whole child.”

The efforts of the 100 RoboCamp students will be on display at Hillside’s Science Fair 6:30-8:30 p.m. April 25 at the school, 36801 W. 11 Mile. The displays will include the robotic soccer game and planet-clearing efforts of the Terraformers.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Chris Jackett at cjackett@candgnews.com or at (586)279-1110.