SLUH brings robotics to middle-school students

Lisa Johnston |

The robot-on-wheels the size of a romote-control car chugged forward, but stopped just before the wall and failed to turn. Sixth-graders Taleah Dilworth and Trinity Stensaker had a brief look of disappointment before quickly reaching down, picking up the robot and getting back to work on it.
"So, what are you trying to do?" St. Louis University High School junior Michael Hayes asked the St. James the Greater School students after they sought his assistance. He calmly guided them through the programming process, allowing the girls to make calculations and decisions. They programmed a route that instructed the robot to stop just before a wall and make its turns. Sensors in the robot respond to the program commands to stop or turn at a prescribed distance.
Hayes is part of SLUH Robotics Club's Clavius Project, a partnership with several Catholic middle schools in the city and surrounding underserved areas to provide after-school robotics training in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) subjects. The project addresses a critical need in the community with a lack of trained professionals in key science, technology, engineering and math disciplines, particularly from underserved areas of the city.
The club operates with the help of mentors Jeff Pitts, a SLUH parent and recently retired St. Louis Brewery general manager for Anheuser-Busch, and Steve Nicollerat, SLUH computer science teacher.
St. James parent volunteer Angie Lanemann said "Robotics is the rage right now. The kids love it. It gets their minds working, which is awesome."
Sixth-grader Kayla Cummins said, "even though it may not be perfect, it feels like we accomplished something."
The robotics program incorporates a workshop for using and programming Lego Mindstorm EV3 robots, followed by four to six sessions to assist staff and students in developing the robotics curriculum at each school.
Participants schools include Loyola Academy, St. Francis Cabrini Academy, Christ the King School, Most Holy Trinity Catholic School and Academy, St. Ambrose School, St. James the Greater School, St. Joan of Arc School, St. Margaret of Scotland School and St. Stephen Protomartyr School.
The Clavius Project -- named after a German Jesuit mathematician and astronomer -- began at SLUH in 2014. While engaging middle-schoolers to pursue interests in STEM fields, the project also helps SLUH students become mentors, leaders and role models.
According to Pitts, the mentor, a pilot effort in January at two middle schools showed that the project needed to be structured while still allowing the students to take part in a trial-and-error process. "A big part of learning is failure," Pitts noted. "That's why we try not to hover over them."
When the students at the schools programmed the robots to do turns, for example, it took four to 10 times until they figured out the right format.
The partnership is introducing robotics to about 100 students this year. An expansion is planned next year.
Melanie Chambers, a math and science teacher at St. James, said the project "makes math interesting and fun, with a real-world application to it" since the programming often requiring students to use ratios, for example.

School robotics
Schools this year taking part in the Clavius Project's middle-school robotics outreach recieve:
• FIRST FLL Lego Mindstorm EV3 robotics kits
• A presentation (if desired) to parents and students about program details
• A robotics workshop at St. Louis University High School, where training is provided for teachers and volunteers for the EV3 robots and programming software.
• Four to six after-school sessions with a Robobill — a student from SLUH — to learn about, build and program the EV3 robots.
• At the end of the year, a planning session to develop the program next year
Levels: FLL stands for FIRST Lego League, and is part of the FIRST robotics platform. There are four platforms — Jr FLL, FLL, FTC and FRC. The FRC level is where St. Louis University High School, Rosati-Kain, Bishop Dubourg and other high schools compete. FLL is for middle school students. 
Robotics program expands
St. Louis University High School has expanded its robotics program thanks to grants from the Innovative Technology Education Fund and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), along with gifts from Dede and Jeff Pitts and Kathleen and Paul Mateck.
The funds have provided for an expansion of the school's robotics lab and the launch of an outreach program to introduce robotics to city Catholic schools.
SLUH has more than doubled its robotics lab, relocating it into a 1,050 square feet facility that includes one laptop and eight desktop computers with Wi-Fi capability, an overhead projector, multiple workbenches and workstations, a drill press, a bench grinder, as well as a range of hand tools, raw materials and safety equipment. The space provides for a computer lab and collaboration area, a fabrication station, an assembly station and ample storage for parts and materials.
The SLUH Robotics Team recently finalized design and development of their next-generation robot. The new lab provided capacity to store components, cut metal to fabricate parts and assemble parts. It also provides space to wire, program and test robot designs. 

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