Martin Robotics Labs Teach the Nuts and Bolts of Teamwork

Can third grade students really do engineering?

That was a question Martin Elementary School teacher Lauren Lesak asked herself after the school created two STEM Robotics Labs within existing computer labs in 2014. Now, well into a year that has seen several Martin classes work within the labs, teachers are asking new questions:

How do we keep them in STEM through high school and beyond? How can we apply the skills learned in the lab across the curriculum? What can’t these kids do?

Thanks in part to a donation from the Chesak-Martin PTA of several VEX Kits—which contain modular robotic parts that allow students to design and create an almost infinite number of different robots—students have not only built machines that could solve real-world problems, but also have learned invaluable skills such as teamwork, collaboration, problem solving, and critical thinking.

“We relate this to real-world problems, so they can make it as realistic as possible so they can see the big picture—how engineering is a huge field for both men and women,” Lesak said.

During a recent project, third grade students in Lesak’s class worked in teams to design an build a machine that could rescue an animal that had fallen into a moat. Over several weeks, the students went through the same process professional engineers do on projects—thinking about a problem, conceptualizing a solution, sketching it, building it, and refining it.

After the third-grade teams built prototypes of their machines, they paired up with fifth-grade students for the important process of presenting and critiquing.

It’s an example of project-based learning in which students are given a problem or challenge they must dive deeply into, bringing to bear the foundational knowledge and skills they have learned in class settings, applying critical thinking to solve problems and improve on their work, and presenting their work to other to gather feedback.

“The kids get in here, they encounter a problem and they have to solve that problem. There’s a lot involved with that. There’s cooperative learning, collaboration, failure, trying something new,” said teacher Sara Meyer. “It’s not always natural for kids. But as we’re in here talking about real-world problems, I’m hearing the kids talk with each other, complement each other. They didn’t come in here day one knowing how to communicate and share ideas.”

Ultimately, she said, such projects help students build competencies needed to succeed in the 21st century.

“I have students in the regular classroom who during whole group or small group have to whisper responses to me,” she said. “But you get them in here with the group, and it’s like they’re a whole new person. That’s got to be the most exciting part is when the kids who normally are not participating are leading the group.”

Those skills translate not just to the engineering field, Lesak said, but across the curriculum. Students are also learning to apply critical thinking in the literacy curriculum, problem solving in mathematics, and creativity and collaboration in all subjects.

But they certainly will serve well the students who want to continue on in STEM through high school and beyond. Huntley High School’s established its STEM Engineering Academy this year with an Introduction to Engineering Design course. The school plans to add more high-level engineering classes in the coming years as well.

“The whole STEM process is that they can start in third grade with being problem solvers, and then we can slowly scaffold them when they get into the high school to continue with STEM,” Lesak said. “Using the STEM Lab, they’re taught that things might not go right the first time. We ask how can you take that, do something differently, and reach an end result that you created.”