By Casey Hans
A four-year-old before-school enrichment program at has students designing, building, programming and using robots. The Pittsfield Elementary Robotics Club has become so popular, that half of the students in grades three through five wanted to participate last spring.
Students work in teams of four to participate in the 10- to 12-week program that takes place for 45-minutes one day each week before the start of school.
“That’s how engineers work together,” explained Charlotte Mayhew, who with her husband, Dirk, launched the program four years ago. “They are working for the goal. It is how most science careers work and that’s why we started with that model. We’re hoping for some of these kids to spark a lifelong interest in science.”
The club was a started by a small group of parents, including a lot of moms without science and engineering backgrounds, Mayhew said. She said the club has really taken off and given students a sense of confidence.
“We’ve seen any number of kids in the club who were interested in science but didn’t think they were good at it,” she said. “It’s really grown over the years.”
Using Lego Mindstorms, each group selects a mission, a moon and a name for their team robot. They must research how large the moon is, how far away it is and how they will get there by creating a mission plan and goal. They then explore their moon.
“They all handle it differently,” Mayhew said. “Some do phenomenally well, others have problems with the building or the programming. That’s why it’s good to have the teams.”
The Mayhews and parent Jim Carroll – who is also head of the Physics and Astronomy Department at Eastern Michigan University – have coordinated the club with the help of media specialist Joyce Followell who recently retired.
Principal Carol Shakarian said the program has been popular and draws large numbers of students . She hopes to see it continue.
“It’s extremely exciting and motivating for our students,” she said. “They’re brainstorming and problem solving and learning to work well together.”
The club started with 16 students and four robots, with teams of four each and has since expanded to 30 students thanks to the generosity of the Pittsfield PTO and an Ann Arbor Public Schools Educational Foundation grant. They charge $25 per student to handle robot parts and maintenance, but have waived the fee as needed.
Parent organizers have helped to design the lessons and have handled much of the behind-the-scenes work needed for the club to function. Club members have done demonstrations at the Pittsfield Math-Science Night, the Pittsfield Science Fair and at the school’s Ice Cream Social in the spring.
Shakarian said it is a great example of a school program that thrives with parent involvement. “It really connects with the school improvement framework,” she said. “It’s a nice marriage of parent involvement. Our own community offers some of our best resources.”
The club teaches more than science, technology and engineering. Teamwork is important, and Mayhew said that the club offers some quieter students a chance to shine and still others a different way to learn. “We try to give them a sense of flexibility – it’s supposed to be fun,” she added.
The Mayhews had a fifth-grader at Pittsfield last year who has moved to Scarlett Middle School this fall, but said they plan to continue working with the program that has become so important to students at the school.
Mayhew said that she would like to see the club expand, perhaps to include elementary schools in the district’s southeast quadrant as well as Scarlett. Many Pittsfield Elementary club members now go on to join teacher Gary Graff’s after-school Engineering Club at Scarlett and sign up for his classes where they can continue working with robots, she said.
For more about Lego Mindstorms, visit www.lego.com.