Fort Smith Junior High robotics team brings ‘Spirit’ to STEM fields

by Aric Mitchell (aric.mitchell@gmail.com) 353 views 

Fort Smith unior High students demonstrate their robotics program to students at Woods Elementary.

A Spirit squad isn’t the first thing one thinks of when hearing the word “Robotics,” but for Amy Markham, the Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) teacher at Chaffin Junior High in Fort Smith, it was obvious.

Markham’s background is in Cheer and Dance. She signed on to lead the junior high robotics program six years ago not fully aware of what she was getting herself in to. She had previous experience doing “LEGO League” and in her interview for the position, she asked “a couple of questions” to gauge how that experience might help.

“I was thinking it would be more like LEGO,” Markham explained, “and they said, ‘Nope, it’s nothing like that.’ So my first year, I had to learn everything from scratch right along with the kids.”

Markham’s fish-out-of-water positioning might have influenced her toward incorporating something she knew into something she didn’t. If that was the case, it paid off. The program has grown from barely existent to 140-strong with a larger rollout planned to the district’s other three junior highs next year. One student from Darby Junior High and five each from Kimmons and Ramsey are now on the team. They’re expected to help build individual programs at their respective schools in the 2018-2019 School Year.

But how Cheer and Dance is relevant to building and controlling robots is another story — one easy to follow if you see the Spirit Team in action.

Markham provided just such an opportunity on Wednesday (Oct. 11) from the Woods Elementary School Tornado Shelter. Sixth grade classes entered the oversized facility through a victory line and “R-O-B-O-T-I-C-S” chants that appeared more suited to a Friday night football game.

The program opened with interpretive dance and a gear-like display of twirling batons before graduating into the featured attraction: a student-built, student-programmed robot capable of “saving” someone from a burning building. Nothing was actually set ablaze, but the robotics team did construct an obstacle course with a small dummy inside. The robot’s objective: go into the course and pull the dummy to safety in 90 seconds or less. To operate the robot, junior high students picked participants from the audience of sixth graders. By the time the first student got his hands on the remote control, enthusiasm had reached a fever pitch with chants of “A.J.! A.J.! A.J.!” rallying him on. Chants continued for the next 30 minutes, adapting to the name of whichever student was in control.

During another section of the program, two teachers were placed into the “burning building” and smaller lighted robots that might pass for BB-8’s cousins rolled fearlessly into the maze — first, to “save” the teachers; next, to deliver cups of water.

The response from Woods Elementary students? Deafening.

Markham’s robotics team will take the act to the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith (UAFS) Stubblefield Center on Saturday (Oct. 14) to compete head-to-head with 15 regional teams from as far away as Oklahoma and Kansas. The four best will advance to the national BEST Robotics (Boosting Engineering, Science, and Technology) competition against top four teams from other hubs throughout the U.S.

But at Woods, the demonstration was not about competition; it was about building interest and enthusiasm for the STEM fields, or as Markham refers to them, STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math).

“That way we can incorporate every component in the curriculum,” Markham said, adding that the Spirit component in particular “can bring such a fun component to a business to promote it. Without Spirit, a lot of businesses don’t get recognized.”

But businesses need more than that to survive — another factor Markham has tried to teach her students by running this year’s robotics program like a company with different “departments.”

“We have Spirit, we have Sportsmanship, we have Website, we have Fundraising, we have CAD (Computer-Aided Design), we have Build, we have the Field team which makes the obstacle course for us to practice on, and we have Programming,” Markham explained, adding that she would try to compartmentalize the different departments, focusing on one area during different days of the week as much as possible, “but realistically we were here every day Monday through Friday until sometimes 7, 8 p.m., just making sure everything was taken care of.”

The BEST Robotics competition gives school programs approximately six weeks to design and build a functioning robot from scratch, and Markham estimates the team had five and a half weeks once they received all materials from host site UAFS. Most of the work took place outside of class.

“When we launch, they give us the theme, they give us the challenge, they give us the supplies, and they say, ‘You have five and a half weeks now to go make this happen.’ So I would say, Monday through Friday for five and a half weeks from 3:30 until, depending on the day, 6 or 7, we were working on it,” Markham said. “We meet in the mornings, too. A lot of times students will come in from 7:15-8:00 and we’ll work on the components.”

And many students would work on more than one component, floating back and forth from Spirit to Website to Marketing. All capacities outside Build and Programming “where it’s all hands on deck” are “usually overlapped by two, so students will be involved in at least two subcategories,” Markham said.

As a result, she noticed that many students who came in not thinking they would have an interest in the STEM aspects changed their mind by the second year of involvement.

“We make the program available to every student. So we have, across the board, students from all different backgrounds and interests, and some of them thought they would never want to be on the robot team. They came in for Spirit, then they realized they really liked the building component. The next year, they came in and started building, which, I think, is super cool.”

As a once-quiet pack of sixth graders leave the Woods Tornado Shelter beaming, shouting, and high-fiving over the robotic team’s “lifesaving robot,” it’s apparent she’s not the only one.

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