Caption: Meet Pamela Rooney-Hofland, a teacher at West Lynn. In a four-part weekly series to celebrate Ed Tech, Grand Erie is featuring dynamic Digital Lead Learners to share their stories and to see the impact on student learning.
Students aren’t just building robots in Pamela Rooney-Hofland’s Grade 5 class at West Lynn Elementary School in Simcoe. They’re building modern-day problem-solving skills and learning to work collaboratively with their peers.
Rooney-Hofland is leading the VEX IQ robotics initiative at West Lynn with a view to fostering a 21st Century learning environment.
Through VEX IQ, a key component of the Grand Erie District School Board’s Educational Technology initiative, the students design and assemble the robots and use computer software to pro-gram them to complete a wide range of tasks.
“There are so many areas where we want to spark an interest,” Rooney-Hofland says.
Using an array of do-it-yourself materials designed with young thinkers in mind, Rooney-Hofland’s charges assemble and code the mostly plastic robots, which have a strong Lego-like feel to them.
“Each robot has a different ability,” Rooney Hofland says. Some can lift blocks and toss them around. Some can push objects. And some are programmed to find their way through a maze.
The students design the maze on the floor and then program the robot using mod-kit software, Rooney-Hofland says, explaining that the activities promote the development of higher-order intellectual skills.
“To do all of this they have to apply their math and problem-solving skills — for instance, measuring angles in order to get the robots to move correctly,” she explains.
Last year, Emily Helmer, now in Grade 6, built a robot capable of using its claw-like hands to pick up small cubes. Particularly rewarding, was programming it to take precise aim and drop the cubes into a net, as if playing basketball.
“It runs using a remote control, but when it’s programmed and you attach it to the computer and program it you no longer need the controller,” Emily says. “It will follow the steps you’ve programmed it to complete on its own.”
Emily and classmate Holden Fex participated with the rest of their class in a multi-school tournament last year, and the duo and their robots proved particularly adept at basketball.
While Emily was busy strategizing a particular play, Holden noticed opposing players using their robots to try to squeeze Emily’s robots out of the action. “I took my claw-bot and put it around the other robots so they couldn’t move, so Emily and her claw-bot could score more points,” Holden says.
The obstruction was entirely legal and illustrates the intellectual skills that Ed Tech and components like VEX IQ are designed to teach.
“You want the robot to turn 90 degrees but sometimes they go a bit off, so you have to make it turn 86 degrees so that it actually turns a whole 90 degrees,” Holden says.
Holden’s move also demonstrates how robotics helps nurture teamwork and collaboration skills, which are increasingly needed in the modern workplace.
“We have a lot of collaboration,” Rooney-Hofland says. “Some groups finish working on their own robot and go around helping others. It’s really awesome to watch the kids take on leadership roles and share what they’re learning.”
School principal Robert Weber says VEX IQ is part of a pilot project the Grand Erie board initiated, and Rooney-Hofland and other teachers supporting the program at their respective schools have proven instrumental.
In fact, Rooney-Hofland also serves as a Digital Lead Learner with the Grand Erie board, helping support her fellow educators in the effective use of technology as a teaching tool both inside and outside the classroom.
“She wouldn’t tell you the amount of extra work she’s put in to make this work,” Weber says. “You know a teacher’s got to see value in something when they take this time because their day is already very busy.”
Weber says VEX IQ and other programs like it help children develop logic and sequential reason-ing skills because they have to work carefully and methodically to build and program the robots.
The process also teaches perseverance and resilience, because things often don’t work as planned, and it gently puts the youngsters in a place where they will have the confidence to follow their dreams.
“Emily’s learning that she has a natural propensity to this sort of thing,” Weber says. “She’s a budding engineer, and in a society where we still have stereotypes about jobs and genders, this neutralizes all of that.”
The last word goes to the students. “It challenged my brain,” says Emily. “It was my first time programming, and I learned how to solve problems.” Holden adds that he found the whole process creative. “If I can build a robot then maybe I can build other things too. It helps us learn and not give up.”