Pushing the limits: Ninilchik students learn problem solving with robots

Posted: Monday, February 28, 2011

While the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District espouses goals to teach all students 21st century skills, Ninilchik teacher David Patat's class at the Challenger Learning Center last week looked like something straight out of the future.

Photo By M. Scott Moon
Photo By M. Scott Moon
Ninilchik science teacher David Patat and Erik Barber watch as Kyle Martin tests his design on a surface intended to mimic Mars.

Metal and plastic robots were crawling the room in Kenai, trying to navigate a maze and conquer foam terrain made to look like the planet Mars.

"You may need to add more support and traction," said Luke Mese, a Challenger Learning Center employee giving pointers to the Ninilchik School students, as their tank-like robot tried to make it up a plywood obstacle.

Patat's robotics class is an eight-week section of his advanced physical science class for high school students. With help from the Challenger Learning Center, the students are building programmable robots from Vex robot starter kits.

"Their first task was to build the base of the robot," Patat said.

Then they have to affix a robotic arm and get both to work at the same time.

"There's lots and lots of great troubleshooting so they can go back and learn something," he said.

Currently the students are using remote controls to move the robots but by the end of the class Patat hopes all the robots will be programmed to move around themselves.

The ultimate challenge for the students is to get their robots to lift an eight-ounce glass of water high enough to empty it into a gallon judge. The team that can do that the fastest will win.

"It's pretty limitless stuff," he said. "They're having fun with it."

Patat said the tasks set out for the class robots are similar to the ones outlined by a national robotics competition. And he's hoping the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District can start a robotics contest of its own.

"We're trying to challenge other schools to do the same thing," he said.

Ninilchik School's robotics science class is the first of it kind in the district.

"We're the guinea pigs," Patat said. "We're hoping the district will adopt it as a class."

And the 19 students enrolled in the course seem to hope so too.

"It's pretty bomb," said Craig Newman, a 16-year-old sophomore. "I wanted to get science over with this year and I was interested in the design parts of the class."

Miranda Monzulla, also 16 and a sophomore, said she took the class because it reminds her of a childhood pastime.

"I like playing with Legos," she said. "It's kind of like playing with Legos only more fun."

Jayke Cooper, 15, a sophomore at Ninilchik School, said he likes the hands-on aspect of the class.

"You get to build things instead of reading out of a textbook," he said.

Patat said that through the robotics the students are learning problem-solving, teamwork and fundamentals of mechanics and design.

"They can take these skills and use them for engineering or go right into the workplace," he said.

Brielle Schaeffer can be reached at brielle.schaeffer@peninsulaclarion.com.

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