MCSD

Martin County School Board staff are currently drawing up plans for robotics to be taught to all fourth graders

STUART – The Martin County School Board debated the feasibility last month of requiring a robotics class in elementary school beginning with the fall semester of the 2020/2021 School Year before ultimately postponing the item until staff could provide more specifics in March.

District 1 Board Member Christia Li Roberts told her fellow Board members Feb. 18 that she had previously brainstormed the idea with staff and still had several issues to resolve. District officials had initially wanted to give elementary school principals leeway in how and when they offered robotics to students but soon found out that the School Board disliked the idea of making elementary robotics an elective course to only those pupils who expressed interest.

Stacey Jones, the District’s program delivery partner for First Lego League Robotics, said she had already approached some elementary-school principals with the idea of getting them more choices.

“A lot of them have already an idea,” she said. “I know Bessy Creek and Pinewood have already discussed with me what they would like to do. It’s supposed to be more organic with the schools actually being more involved.”

Ms. Roberts, however, made it clear she was not interested in offering elementary-school principals the option of teaching robotics as an elective or an after-school activity.

“I’m not comfortable with that,” she said. “I’m not comfortable with… here’s your funding, do it however you want. I want robotics in every elementary and every middle school, but I feel it needs to be direction from the Board that this is the way we want you to do it.”

Board Member Roberts was also determined that the course be open to all students and not just those who had the freedom and ability to stay after school.

“I also have an issue with the afterschool club enrichment piece, because I think the thought was we were going to try and allow any student to be exposed to this,” she added.

Once the rest of the Board agreed they did not want elementary robotics treated as an after-school course because it would require students have transportation, Chairwoman Marsha Powers wanted staff’s opinion on which students would get the most out of it.

“What do you think is the best grade to implement it?” she asked.

Ms. Jones didn’t bat an eye on the answer.

“I would say fourth just because fifth grade’s so stressful for these kids,” she emphasized. “They’re getting ready for middle school.”

Although staff originally thought 30 minutes might be adequate for the elementary school introduction to robotics, Ms. Jones quickly shot that idea down.

“With my experience of 23 years, I would be pushing it to have 30 minutes,” she insisted. “It’s really difficult to get the materials out, get everything done and then give them actual time that’s meaningful. So, I’m not quite sure that’s actually going to work, because we are talking about robots [and] they have to get their computer out to start programming. It would be difficult.”

Board members and staff then brainstormed when fourth-grade students would have enough time in the day to study robotics and how to best handle its instruction. Dr. Miller emphasized that the initial idea of having it taught as an additional enrichment activity during physical education wouldn’t work due to the limited 30-minute time slot. That only leaves schools a couple of other options.

“We don’t have 45 minutes except during the related arts time, which that would be science lab, and that would just be on a rotating basis every week,” she said.

Ms. Jones suggested the schools could alternate the students every nine-week period to lessen the need for as many robots, and Chairwoman Powers wondered if the planned robotics course would really require that much of the school year. Science Coordinator Valerie Gainer told her fourth graders could probably finish the course much quicker.

“Eight-to-10 hour-long periods is what you’ve told me,” she reminded the Board. “So, it would not be nine weeks – it would actually be about a two-week period.”

That news encouraged Ms. Roberts, who realized that each elementary school would then need even fewer robots and could potentially find a sponsor through Lego League to offset the costs.

“If you had 100 kids and you divide them into four groups, and you put four kids at each of the 25 onto a robot, then that means you’d need about six robots,” she explained. “So, six at the list price of a robot at $410, that’s say $2,400 for robot supplies. If the District has a plan to have robotics for every fourth grader in science, etc., they [Lego] will help you find a sponsor who is willing to help you with this but they want to see a MOU [memorandum of understanding] that says you have a commitment to do this.”

Ms. Jones further clarified the sponsorship possibilities.

“There are other counties doing it: Hillsborough, Volusia, Palm Beach County, and they do try to find a company that does want to sponsor,” she said. “There’s quite a number of them, especially in this area with our tech companies.”

Since most elementary schools lack a full science lab, Board Member Victoria Defenthaler wondered if other teachers would be allowed to teach the course through the related arts period.

“It doesn’t have to be a science lab teacher?” she asked. “Could a related arts teacher do it?”

“We could have someone trained who could do it,” Dr. Miller answered.

The chief academic officer then asked if elementary principals would have a choice of whether to offer the course through a science lab rotation or allow all fourth-grade teachers to teacher in their own classrooms. Ms. Roberts had no opposition to providing them that particular option.

“From my perspective, if the grade level is fourth grade, then all fourth-graders need to be exposed to the first curriculum for robotics,” she said. “So, however you’re going to work that out, [but] it doesn’t mean after school, it doesn’t mean all this other stuff; somewhere in the classroom in fourth grade, however many hours this is.”

Ms. Defenthaler concurred.

“I think it’s essential to expose kids do robotics,” she said. “It’s critical thinking, it’s higher level thinking, and that’s really the reason I would like to see it.”

The Board will revisit the issue as part of its March 24 agenda.

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