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Internship exposes middle school students to robotics

August 05, 2009

The sleek remote-control cars spinning over an ASU classroom floor on a recent summer day looked and sounded like toys.

They were far more than that.

Instead, this ballet of cars and student operators was part of a technologically centered, discovery-based three-day research internship intended to expose students from Carson Junior High School and Powell Junior High School in Mesa to sophisticated technologies and computational concepts. Technologies include such devices as: the TI-84 graphing calculator, TI-robot chassis, ultrasonic range finders, and data collection probes. Each stage of the internship allowed students to explore science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) related concepts through inquiry and discovery.

The workshop in early June was a summer extension of ASU’s Learning through Engineering Design and Practice: STEM Education for an Equitable Future, a National Science Foundation funded research and community collaborative, which introduces underrepresented youth to the STEM disciplines and career pathways.

Directed by Tirupalavanam Ganesh, the assistant dean for information systems with the Mary Lou Fulton Institute and Graduate School of Education, the multi-faceted, year-round after-school program engages middle school students in real-world problem-solving.

Among their summer challenges is to “learn to program and use a Texas Instrument Graphing Calculator as a computational and analytical tool,” Ganesh says. “Along the way participants will learn how to collect and record data using different types of probes to analyze relationships among variables through tables and graphs.”

Participants in the summer research internship began their exploration by programming the TI-84 graphing calculator, in conjunction with the TI-robot chassis, to autonomously navigate student-constructed obstacles. Tania Lyon, an ASU electrical engineering student mentored middle school participants during this internship, by working side by side with the eighth grade students.

“I am so pleased with the accomplishments of each student,” says John Thieken, a teacher at Paradise Valley’s Pinnacle High School, and a research associate with the program. “The basic concepts and implementations of programming is difficult for college students, and the eighth grade students here, today, grasped the ideas quickly and easily.”

Participants then programmed the TI calculator robot to draw specific geometric patterns on 2-by-2 foot whiteboards. In order to accomplish this task, in addition to programming the calculator, they had to design and construct a penholder using found objects that could be attached to the TI robot.

Wendy Garcia, 14, of Carson Junior High, who also wants to be an engineer, was excited about using the calculator.

“I think it is pretty fun,’’ Garcia says. “We get to use the calculators as robots and also collect data from the outside world. I didn’t think you could do so much with it.”

Garcia attached a pen to the calculator and manipulated it to draw a circle and a triangle.

“You think it is impossible, but when you put it to work, it makes sense,” she says.

The next phase of the workshop gave students an opportunity to explore distance versus time and velocity versus time graphs using remote-control cars and the Calculator-Based Ranger (CBR) attached to the graphing calculator. Students were charged with the task of manipulating their remote-controlled cars to match distance vs. time and velocity vs. time graphs stored in the Calculator-Based Rangers and displayed on the TI-84 graphing calculator.

“They learn to match the graph through trial and error,” says Jaime Gephart, an eighth- and ninth-grade science teacher at Powell Junior High.

“We teach these concepts in ninth grade, but for a lot of students they are very hard to understand. It seems hard until they do it.”

Khoi Nguyen and Wesley Burnham, both 14 of Carson Junior High identified and overcame challenges they ran into while performing this activity. Both students discovered that despite the CBR’s big electronic eye, it had trouble detecting the small toy cars, meaning it couldn’t collect data.

“We had to do something so the CBR could see our car better,” Wesley said. To solve this problem, Khoi and Wesley modified their small car with construction paper to increase the car’s cross-sectional area.

Matthew Gingerella, an ASU undergraduate chemical engineering student, who served as one of the student mentors, retrieved orange plastic tracks to steady the car. Other students also capped their toy cars with paper cups and opted to edge them along a wall to keep them straight.

Thieken said about half the students managed to match the graph on the calculator.

Khoi who wants to be an aeronautical engineer, said he liked learning about the graphing calculator because as engineers steeped in physics and higher math, “we will use them all of our lives.” Project Principal Investigator, Ganesh said that these participants would get to keep the TI graphing calculator and the robot chassis to explore and use on their own time at home and at school.

Ganesh said, “to foster innovation and creativity, students need to have access to the technologies when they need it and given opportunities to play with them. One of the goals of this project is to place technologies in the hands of the students that wouldn’t otherwise be available to them at their homes or in their junior high schools.”

Finished with the cars, the students originally were to use the graphing calculators to graph distance vs. time to calculate the velocity of water balloons tied to student-designed plastic bag parachutes dropped from the third floor of the Farmer Education Building.

The goal was to design a parachute that would waft down gently without breaking the water balloons.

Yamile Lozano, 13, of Carson, sketched a hexagon on a double layer of white plastic, explaining that a six-sided parachute “would have more air in it,” and set the balloon down without breaking.

In the end, the graphing calculators were put away and the students dropped their balloons, water sprayed or not, and no one worried too much about distance and motion.  It was just summer fun.

The final phase of the workshop explored various Vernier data gathering probes. Such tools included: soil moisture probes, temperature probes, Ultraviolet sensors, light sensors, and low-gravity accelerometers. Students connected these tools to the TI-84 graphing calculator to collect and display data tables and graphs. Students personalized the use of these probes and sensors by designing and conducting their own experiments with their probe or sensor of choice.

Lisa Randall, an ASU instructional professional with the project, said, “my group of three students used the calculator and temperature probe to construct data tables comparing the outside temperatures at each floor of ASU’s Sustainability Green building and the Farmer Education building.”

The students were attempting to figure out if the outside courtyard of the Green building was cooler than that of the Farmer building which is an older construction not designed to maintain the same temperature on all floors.

Once students completed their experiments they reported out by graphing the results on posters and presenting their discoveries to the entire group.

Earlier this year, students from Carson and Powell spent more than a month engineering models of the surface of Mars and took photos of the red planet’s canals and mountains with ASU’s Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) camera.  The Mars curriculum was presented in collaboration with the ASU Mars Education Program.

In addition to teaming up with the Mars Education Program to design autonomous rovers capable of navigating Mars-like terrain, program participants, over the course of the two-year program, have had the opportunity to work with the Global Institute of Sustainability to research and develop designs to mitigate the urban heat island. In 2008, they also participated in “cognitive apprenticeships” with scientists and engineers from Microchip. ASU undergraduate students in Engineering and Science, some of whom are graduates of Mesa Public Schools, also provide cognitive apprenticeships throughout the program by interacting informally with the participants, sharing their interests and passion for their chosen career pathway while also helping facilitate this technologically rich extracurricular program.

Earlier in June, the program won the 2009 Arizona Business and Education Coalition (ABEC) “Best Practices” in Business-Education Award for the Best Emerging Partnership for its Powering our Future: Renewable Energy Summer Internship program.  The internship is an integral part of the grant initiative, which offers a rich collection of hands-on explorations into natural resources, energy conservation, and renewable energy technologies. This year, the internship presented by Salt River Project (SRP), Arizona water and energy company, Mesa Public Schools, the Arizona Foundation for Resource Education and ASU, will be held Aug. 3-5, 2009 at SRP’s facilities.

Carol Sowers,
(602) 524-4443
Mary Lou Fulton Institute and Graduate School of Education