Robotics get students programmed to succeed

Photos by Ariana van den Akker/The Herald
Lincoln Trail Elementary fifth-grader Grace Gasaway, left, raised her hands in victory and she and Nancy Hanks Elementary fifth-grader Erik Thomas watched their robot catch and drag a box just like they programmed it do do on Wednesday during a weekly robotics program for fifth and sixth graders in the North Spencer County School Corporation hosted at Heritage Hills Middle School. During the 12-week program, students learned to build and program lego robots.

Herald Staff Writer

LINCOLN CITY — An armored robot sped across the floor, headed right for sixth-grader Andrew Alban’s leg.

The tiny machine pinned him up against the wall, just as he and his friends, fifth-grade students Jackson Foertsch and Liz Mehling, had intended. Andrew and Jackson, of Lincoln Trail Elementary School, and Liz, of Nancy Hanks Elementary School, all spent an hour after school Wednesday on the computer, entering commands into a special list in an effort to control their robot. Their final goal — to attach Lego spikes to the footlong machine and make it attack — was the culmination of weeks of work to learn basic programming skills at Heritage Hills Middle School.

The new after-school technology program grew out of classroom activities that Nancy Hanks teacher Laura Weisman did with her fifth-grade students last year. Her class was able to build and test underwater robots called Sea Perch, and a few students even competed with them in a local show.

Weisman approached Superintendent Dan Scherry earlier this semester with the idea to open an 11-week robotics class to fifth- and sixth-grade students in all four corporation elementary schools in an effort to spread her love of science to others.

Lincoln Trail Elementary School fifth-grader Grace Gasaway, left, and Nancy Hanks Elementary School sixth-grader Zach Fortune and fifth-grader Erik Thomas worked on their robot after it was programmed Wednesday at Heritage Hills Middle School.

“This is something that I’m interested in, so of course I want to have it in my classroom. It’s not an interest to every (teacher), so I feel like this is one way that I can really reach out to the community and interest these kids and expose them to the programming part of it and the collaboration part of it,” Weisman said. “I wanted to offer a program where they can come in after school, where there isn’t that pressure of academics but it’s still fun for them and they’re still learning.”

The middle school building was a central location for all of the participants. Some members of the high school robotics team attended many of the sessions to help teach and monitor the younger students. Originally, 78 children signed up for the program, and by the end the attendance had averaged to about 65 students per session. Weisman said the number was larger than expected.

“I was pleased with the turnout,” she said. “You have some students who are very hands-on learners. They might not be excelling at academics, but this may be something that really pulls their interest and that they will be good at and can build their confidence.”

Nancy Hanks Elementary School sixth-grader Daley Atchison, left, read a programming manual Wednesday at Heritage Hills Middle School as her robotics partner, Lincoln Trail Elementary fifth-grader Jacob Smith, plugged in the robot to transfer programming data to it. 

Last Wednesday marked the 10th week of the program. One day a week beginning in October, Weisman gave the students structured goals to achieve with the robots that they had constructed out of Lego Mindstorm materials. They were asked to program the machines to move in particular patterns by instructing them to roll for a certain number of tire rotations or turn by a certain number of degrees.

“It really pulls in a lot of math concepts, a lot of problem-solving concepts,” Weisman said. “Being able to work together with students from all over the corporation they may or may not have known previously, I think it gives them a lot of those essential life skills that they’re going to need.”

On the free day on Wednesday, the students experimented by adding light and sound sensors to their robots. Nancy Hanks sixth-grader Daley Atchison and her partner, Lincoln Trail fifth-grader Jacob Smith, attempted to program their robot to move and spin across the floor while playing certain musical notes. For Daley, who was able to show off her science skills already last school year when she entered the Sea Perch underwater robot competition, spending extra time after school building and programming was a natural choice. For Smith, who had never worked with robots before, it was an interesting new experience.

Lincoln Trail Elementary School fifth-grader Jackson Foertsch winced as his group’s robot bumped into his face as the students were testing it Wednesday at Heritage Hills Middle School.

“I had really nothing to do after school, and I felt like doing something fun,” Jacob explained. “Since I really like building Legos, I felt like doing this.”

Donations from PTOs and the Spencer County Community Foundation helped fund the purchases of the robotics kits for this first year of the program, but Weisman said she hopes to seek grants in the future. The corporation already has agreed to continue offering the activity each year, though the exact dates are not finalized.

“It’s fun for them,” Weisman said. “They’re getting to do different things that are interesting to them.”

Contact Claire Moorman at

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