Grant to support new Avondale Middle School all-girl robotics team

By: Mary Beth Almond | Rochester Post | Published April 8, 2015

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ROCHESTER HILLS/AUBURN HILLS — A robot crafted entirely by a team of middle school girls from the Avondale School District will compete for the first time in next year’s Oakland County Robotics Competitive Association’s Middle School VEX championship.

The district’s first all-girls robotics team — led by science teacher Laura Amatulli — is being launched next fall at Avondale Middle School, thanks to a $7,500 grant from the Chrysler Foundation to support and foster the development of innovative science, technology, engineering and math  — or STEM — programs for students in grades K-12. The grant was given to the Avondale Education Foundation — which aims to support student development, promote excellence through creative teaching, and foster community and school partnerships by securing and allocating financial and other resources to create or expand education-related enrichment projects and programs offered through the district.

At the middle school level, boys typically dominate the robotics engineering extracurricular activities, according to Amatulli, who said she believes that an all-girls team is an excellent way to introduce girls to careers in engineering, math, technology and science, and to plan their high school academic curriculum accordingly.

“It’s science, technology, engineering and math all rolled into one, so it gets them working with design principles and every kind of robotic part you can think of,” she said. “They are actually building for a competition, which changes every year, so they have to use creativity, technology, engineering and math to accomplish the task in a competitive environment.”

The middle school launched its first robotics club — the AMS Mechanical Mustangs — in 2013 after former students Isaiah Hawkins and Katherine Wang pitched the idea to teachers.

“Our first year, one of our former middle school kids came to the school after he had done high school robotics, and he said it would really make a difference if we had a middle school team,” Amatulli said. “I said, ‘Wow, what a great idea’. … It was really exciting having a student pitch the idea, and I was just really excited about sharing his love of robotics.”

Hawkins, 17, a senior at the International Academy, was inspired by a lot of the work that he did his freshman and sophomore years with his high school robotics team, but said he wished he had prior experience going into it, like many of the others on his team.

“I wanted to give the students coming up a chance to get interested in science and engineering, and have them be more prepared going into their high school robotics team,” he said in an email.

Hawkins hopes the middle school students will gain a love for robotics through the team.

“Having a robotics program can really change the way you think for the better. You gain new skills and ways of understanding, along with a new community of friends to be a part of, and I’m glad that I got the chance to share that with these kids,” he said.

Now in its second year, the club is currently co-ed and open to students in sixth, seventh and eighth grades. Hawkins and Wang help mentor the team.

“Last year we had three girls, and this year we had five. The girls seemed to take a back seat, so we decided that it would be a really good idea to do an all-girls team. ...  We really hope to see the girls take the lead in building the robot, without being overpowered by the boys, which seems to happen in middle school,” Amatulli said.

The Chrysler Foundation grant will support the existing Avondale Middle School co-ed teams, allowing them to expand the program and purchase needed equipment. The $7,500 grant will also help cover tournament fees.

At the middle school level, students build VEX robots and program them to perform precision tasks, while high school students build For Inspiration and Recognition in STEM Academics, or FIRST, robots. All teams will be working with Oakland University students, who will serve as programming and development mentors. Both the middle school and high school teams will compete at Oakland County events, and winning students will have an opportunity to continue to compete at the regional level.

Avondale Superintendent James Schwarz said the district is grateful to the Chrysler Foundation for its generous support of the Avondale Education Foundation.  “Through this $7,500 grant our students will see an immediate increase in STEM opportunities and increase their knowledge and exposure to technical skills and careers including engineering,” Schwarz said. “Chrysler understands this type of private support of public education has a positive impact on future generations of employees, and we encourage other companies to consider supporting public education following the Chrysler Foundation’s example.”

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