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South Jordan Journal

Aspen Elementary students get hands-on approach to learning robotics, STEM activities

Dec 09, 2021 03:41PM ● By Julie Slama

Aspen Elementary STEM coordinator Sharon Smith and students have fun while trying out dash robots, one of 49 different STEM tools available from Jordan School District. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

When Aspen Elementary student Ryan Shith attended his STEM class, he was in control of a dash robot.

“I can make it go forward and backward,” said the fourth-grade student who likes to fix his own bike and may want an engineering career when he’s older. “I’ve never done this before, but it’s pretty easy and fun.”

Fourth-grader Kanyon Niehaus raced his robot against a classmate.

“The robot can talk, blink and smile besides move and change colors,” he said.

Other students took turns controlling the robots on iPads as they followed lines, curves, under table legs, through arches made by their classmates and Principal Suzie Williams, and whatever course the students and their STEM coordinator Sharon Smith created.

“I absolutely have the coolest job,” Smith said, who after retiring from her human resources position, heard the new school was looking for staff and asked how she could help. “I’m having so much fun with the kids. This has given me a chance to learn.  Every idea for me is a new idea and the students are excited to learn.”

On a regular rotation, Smith, who co-teaches with Rebecca Najera, checks out one of 49 different tools, from robots to creative links, through Jordan School District. Robots total 918 and then, 120 iPads to use to run them, said District STEM and computer science consultant Kami Taylor.

“We’ve spent about $300,000 on the robots and iPads in the last two years,” Taylor said. By the District having the supply, it saves on resources and allows schools to have more variety than if they were to only purchase one or two STEM tools. “When kids from last year are seeing robots again this year, they have that retention on how to use them. Now, they’re pushing it further and engaging, trying new things.”

The funding for the STEM tools comes from three grants, state computing partnership and computer science grants as well as an Adobe grant for technology, she said.

Before the school year begins, Taylor trains STEM coordinators for weeks, showing them how to use the resources.

“I’ve brought in those teaching, like Sharon, to learn how to use the tools so they will actually enjoy it with their kids. I’ve really made a concerted effort to get these resources into the elementary schools to make sure that every single student in Jordan has access to this technology,” Taylor said, adding that the STEM coordinators continue to meet monthly and have shared ideas on the Canvas online learning platform. 

Taylor said that the first few times students look at activities, such as robots, they will learn how to make it work, put it together or make it go along a straight line. 

“Then, we will collectively keep them moving forward. By the time they get to fifth and sixth grades, they are doing real coding and not just moving a robot around, but actually impacting and problem-solving,” she said. “Right now, we have 28 elementaries that are participating, but my goal is to have all 43 on the rotation. I’m also training our middle school and high school teachers to offer a more rigorous, robust curriculum.”

At Aspen, students rotate into the STEM classroom for 45 minutes.

“We’ll be doing some hands-on experiences, building a catapult, erecting a bridge out of popsicle sticks and pasta, making a roller coaster model, creating the best paper-tube towers and doing all sorts of creative play and engineering and even programming this fall,” Smith said. “It’s a fun learning format for kids and we have the attitude that ‘you can do it’ and ‘we don’t give up, but we try again’ in our STEM classroom.”

While currently students were working on challenges with dash robots, Kanyon said, “We’ve done some other fun things too. I liked playing a banana like a piano,” a reference to using a Makey Makey, an electronic STEM kit that allows kids to connect everyday objects to a circuit board that is then connected to a computer.

“Or using a potato to make electricity,” Ryan added, remembering how the vegetable battery helped produce energy.

Williams, their principal, appreciates this hands-on STEM learning.

“They’re learning about technology, robotics, and programming and coding,” she said. “This is what makes school fun.”