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Elementary Students Engineer a Future of Fun in Robotics
Posted 12/20/22

robotics students at Andersen

Just five minutes after the school day has ended, the robotics room at Andersen Elementary is already a whirlwind of activity. Inside the school library, plastic pieces that resemble parts of an Erector Set are being snapped together on a 6-foot-by-8-foot plastic playing field, some students sort pieces on a table, while others scrutinize build plans around a laptop. A tall sixth-grader methodically moves from group to group, asking other kids what they’re working on before conferring with Teacher Jeff Vonnahme on what needs to be done next. The 15 students, ranging from fourth graders to sixth graders, are all working to assemble this year’s VEX Robotics game, “Slapshot.”

Meanwhile, at Davis Magnet School, Teacher Danielle Lopez welcomes into the Robotics Lab about a dozen students who were selected by their teachers for the after-school program. And just like at Andersen, the eager fifth- and sixth-graders are learning the basics of engineering — design, build, test, improve, retest — while putting together their own robots and playing field. 

These young engineers are part of a resurging population within Newport-Mesa Unified School District (NMUSD), as some elementary schools (including Eastbluff, Harbor View, Kaiser, Pomona, Rea, Sonora and Whittier) are bringing their robotics programs back to life. The extracurricular STEM activity utilizes students’ problem-solving skills while teaching the basics of engineering and computer coding. Once finished, this year’s project will feature five automated disc dispensers and a drivable robot on a 6-foot-by-8-foot playing field that’s divided by a fence, which separates the driving area from four goal zones for the discs. Interlocking plastic pieces are used to build everything, and once motors are added, students can control their robots through programming they’ve coded using VEX’s educational software. Students also learn to skillfully drive a robot using a remote control, as well as control a driving pattern through software they’ve programmed.

Andersen students building gateThe object of the game is for a player to maneuver a robot to the dispensers, each one fitted with a disc, then launch the discs into the goal zones, each of which is worth a different amount of points. The player then scores additional points by extending a robotic arm over the divider fence and touching a goal zone. 

During competitions, two teams use the same playing field to cooperatively drive their respective robots around the field and score points. Each team also tests driving skills using a remote control, as well as programming skills by driving without a remote control.

The Orange County Department of Education’s Orange County Robotics Consortium has released its first competition schedule since the 2019-20 school year. Davis’ Lopez says her students will be competing in the Orange County Classic in February. “I’m so excited to get the kids out there to build a community with other teams. I can’t wait to see what will happen,” she says. 

NMUSD secondary schools foster the excitement of our elementary engineers by offering Career Technical Education pathways that incorporate the robotics and coding skills learned in these elementary programs.