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Hands-On Learning with Middle School Robotics Gahanna-Jefferson Public Schools

Gahanna Jefferson Public Schools understands the importance of giving students class options beyond the standard curriculum. These courses offer the opportunity for students to learn hard and soft skills that may be crucial to their future career. The middle school robotics program does just that.

And while distance learning, brought on by COVID-19, has presented a recent challenge for hands-on learning, it hasn’t stopped the robotics staff and students from keeping the high-tech building going.

Dave Merrick, a Middle School East science teacher, has taken it upon himself to create and deliver robot-building kits to the doorstep of his students during the pandemic. Each kit has enough materials for students to build a functional robot at home, which they can then use to learn programming skills. He also has connected with students through Google Hangouts, which allows for students to present on topics such as the various uses for robots.

“Even in these unprecedented times, nothing can stop us from learning,” said Merrick.

The dedicated robotics teachers at GJPS are utilizing these innovative distance learning techniques to continue to foster a love of robotics early in a students’ life.

“It’s important to start teaching automation and robotics at a young age,” said Kristy Mishler, eighth grade science and robotics teacher at Middle School South. “Because of the increased use of technology in schools and businesses, it’s more important than ever that, as educators, we are incorporating courses like robotics that prepare students for their future careers. Automation and robotics increase students’ abilities to be problem-solvers, thinkers and innovators.”

Robotics and automation coursework include the basics of mechanics, including building gear mechanisms like chain drive, simple gears and bevel gears. Students are taught the ways those gears can be combined to create different machines as a framework for later projects. Once students are familiar with these basics, they learn how to program using ROBOTC, a cross-platform programming language.

After gaining a firm grasp of the ROBOTC program, students are given several open-ended projects they can select from to build such as model windmills, bridges, toll booths, escalators and even cars. These projects give students the flexibility to develop plans and implement them independently.

“I really enjoy the opportunity to be a facilitator for this course,” said Mishler. “I teach students the basics in the beginning and from there, it’s up to them to design, build, make mistakes, rebuild and find success. My role is to be a helping teammate while we all learn together.”

Mishler says while students usually find the course challenging at first, they grow to really enjoy their work as they navigate facilitating their own learning, perhaps for the first time. Students must be willing to make mistakes and learn to fix them in order to create a successful robot, she adds.

“It’s an incredibly rewarding experience to watch students come to the realization that their first attempts at building a robot don’t need to be perfect,” said Mishler. “I so enjoy watching them invent their own builds.”

Many students who learned robotics in elementary school and take robotics and automation in middle school go on to take high school robotics courses. Mishler says she loves hearing from her past students who have continued to explore their love of robotics and automation after finishing the class.