Larry the Robot Makes Impression on Heatherstone Students

Feb. 24, 2017 ~ Enthusiasm for the new after-school Lego robotics club at Heatherstone Elementary School was evident from the moment 40 applications came in for the first session last semester. Thankfully, organizers were able to accommodate many of those who didn't make it into the first round of 24 members by starting a new group in February.

"As I watched students participate in this club, I saw engagement and excitement," Principal Ruth Waggoner said. "This was an incredible opportunity for our Heatherstone students and I believe participation in the club sparked a new interest in math and science, and possible career paths in those areas."

The idea for a robotics club began a couple of years ago when Angela Broockerd's son attended Heatherstone. His interest in robotics spurred her to talk with other parents and the school PTO about the need for a robotics group. Excitement continued to build when they were able to obtain a $2,000 grant from Digital Ally and another $1,000 from the school PTO.

"We felt like a push with STEM activities is a growing area and it will benefit our children to have this (robotics) background in middle school," Broockerd said.

Fellow Heatherstone parents Jim Farnham and Eric Bloomcamp were the first teachers/sponsors and admit they had a lot to learn before leading a dozen weekly sessions with 24 fourth- and fifth-graders. Farnham describes himself as a geek and inventor, but his position as director of software at Digital Ally helped the club acquire much needed grant funding and equipment. Bloomcamp is a computer engineer who "plays around with robotics" in his spare time.

"The students' training came from professionals in the field who also created a website for the club," Waggoner said. "Students got to delve deeper into robotics than clubs we've had in the past. The professionals have true expertise in this field."

Wearing their Heatherstone Robotics Club T-shirts (funded by the grants) and seated at laptops donated by Digital Ally, club members learned about Lego robotics, fundamental electronic concepts, fundamental programming, teamwork, and problem solving. Early on, they decided they wanted to make something that could be used in their school, something that promoted recycling.

"The students created a robot that places pop tabs we collect in a bucket," Waggoner said. "When students put the tab in the chute, the robot takes them, puts them in the bucket, and says thank you."

The robot uses a large motor and sensors to complete its task. Just before Semester Break, club members took turns demonstrating their robot in the school office.

"Each week students' foundation of knowledge grew until they were able to present their final project — Larry the Robot," Waggoner said. "Each member of the club presented to classes within the school, explaining how Larry worked and some basic engineering principles. It was exciting to watch!"

"If you can teach what you've done, you understand it," Farnham said of the club members' ability to understand and then demonstrate their robot. "There have been at least two dozen aha moments in this club."

Back in the school office, Waggoner was impressed by the club members' knowledge and how it affected other students.

"The younger students were fascinated, and this ignited more of an interest in math and science when they were able to see a real-world application of those content areas," she said.

Volunteer talks with students about robot Jim Farnham teamed up with another Heatherstone father to teach the first semester of the after-school robotics club. Near the end of their project, students gathered around Farnham to watch their robot complete a set task. “It’s been fun to see this club come to fruition,” said Angela Broockerd, a parent of students at Heatherstone and California Trail Middle School who initially promoted the idea of a robotics club. “There was a huge response to the formation of this club.”
Students feed robot with pop tabs

Students dropped pop tabs into a slot in their robot’s display case. The tab is then delivered to the other end of the case by a robot that dumps the tab into a collection bin. Devising the lesson plans for the first semester of this club was challenging, but all lessons were documented so future club leaders will have an exact plan to follow if needed.

Volunteer helps girls with programming Eric Bloomcamp is a Heatherstone parent who volunteered to help teach the first semester of the robotics club. “Thankfully we have a community of parents who jump right in and volunteer,” said Angela Broockerd, fellow parent and club founder. In addition, some California Trail Middle School students helped during first semester, and there are plans to get some students from Olathe Northwest High School involved this semester.
Boys work on an independent project These boys worked on independent creative projects for a few minutes during the final club meeting of the semester. “This is different from some other Lego robotics clubs because our students are not only working with Lego Mindstorms, they are also learning the basics of electronics, programming and are being introduced to Arduinos,” said Angela Broockerd.