NAUGATUCK — Fourth-graders at Hop Brook Elementary School watched in anticipation last week as their robot rolled its way down a hallway.
After traveling about 10 feet the robot made a left turn and headed into a classroom. The three fourth-graders jumped up and cheered because, after many attempts and many mistakes, they had successfully built and programmed a robot to do exactly what they wanted.
“It’s kind of exciting because it doesn’t really look like it’s going to do much on the computer, but then it goes across a hall and turns. It looks like a regular car pretty much, but much slower,” fourth-grader Harrison Grenier said.
Grenier is one of 10 students that are a part of the new robotics club at Hop Brook. The club was started in April with two Lego Mindstorm EV3 robotics sets.
Teachers Tom Deitelbaum and Rob Hollern, who are the advisors for the club, said the club has been a learning process for themselves as well as the students.
Deitelbaum said the students built the robots in the first week. Now, they are working on programming the robot to move the way they want.
“What we’re learning collectively, the students, myself and Mr. Hollern, is to get the robot to do something basic is not so basic. There’s a myriad of ways we can tell it to do something like go forward and then have it turn in the way you want it to turn,” Deitelbaum said.
Deitelbaum said the robots receive their instructions from the programming interface on the computer.
“So anytime the students want the robot to do something they have to compile a bit of code that will tell it what to do,” Deitelbaum said.
Deitelbaum said the idea for the robotics club came from a conversation he had with one of the student’s fathers earlier in the year. They began discussing their interest in mechanics and how the Lego robots can help foster that interest in students.
“Quite honestly this father was a nice springboard to get us thinking about it,” Deitelbaum said. “The dad planted the seed, and when Rob and I started looking at it we said, ‘This would be a home run if we could do this with kids.’”
The teachers presented the idea to Hop Brook Principal Kathy Taylor, who supported the idea.
In order to gauge interest in a robotics club, Hollern put together a small quiz and questionnaire about coding and engineering. It was handed out in January to any fourth-graders who were interested.
Out of the school’s 74 fourth-graders about 60 took the quiz and questionnaire, Hollern said.
“It was wonderful. The only downside is it’s heartbreaking to only be able to select 10 students,” Deitelbaum said.
The club will continue once a week through the end of the year. Hollern expects the club to start up again at the beginning of next school year, and he plans to break it into four 10-week sessions.
“Instead of 10 kids we get maybe 40,” Hollern said.
Hollern and Deitelbaum said they would like to purchase more robotics sets for the club, but the price is prohibitive. The robot costs $350 and the license for the software costs an additional $100, he said
Hop Brook is not the only school in the district with this type of club. City Hill Middle School currently has a robotics club. Andrew Avenue Elementary School and Cross Street Intermediate School will start their own robotics club next school year.
The students started out simply wanting to make the robot go forward as fast as it could, Deitelbaum said. Now the students are doing much more.
“They are problem solving on their own. We give them a task and they are talking to each other, what they think is the best way to do it. It’s awesome to see. It’s those things that, in a strict academic setting there may be resistance to, but you set them free and it’s amazing to see how they work together to try and solve the problem,” Deitelbaum said.
Deitelbaum added the math required to work the robots is above the fourth-grade level.
“We work together with them, but it is good exposure for them,” Deitelbaum said. “With this they have to reach beyond what they usually do to succeed, which is nice. I think it’s good motivation for them to try to push themselves a little bit.”
The motivation was obvious on May 4 as Genier, Atticus Brackett and Samuel Zembruski tried to navigate their robot into the correct room. One time it turned to the right instead of the left, another time it overshot the room, and another trial had the robot heading for the brick wall next to door.
With each failure the three boys would scoop up their robot and rush back to the computer, talking about what they could do to fix the problem.
The failures did not deter Brackett; they only made him want to work harder.
“I really like programming things. And I like trying to make something do something. If you fail, you just try it again. Kind of like trial and error. I just like retrying things to get it perfect,” Brackett said.
This is the attitude that Deitelbaum and Hollern were hoping to foster in students when they started the club.
“It’s fun, but if it catches the kids’ interest it makes them good problem solvers and creative thinkers. I think it positions them well for their future,” Deitelbaum said.