The Valdez Star - Serving Prince William Sound and Copper River Basin

By Lee Revis
Editor, Valdez Star 

Robot fever strikes grade school students

Students add Robotics to the three R’s


Valdez Star photo

Students participating in the First Lego League were treated to a visit from the robot owned by the Valdez Police Dept. Officer Jamie Majors was at the controls.

A group of Hermon Hutchens Elementary School students have added the science of robotics to the three Rs of education.

The after-school club formed to build Robots made of Legos have won a qualifying competition to compete against 30 other teams in Fairbanks next month. Oh, and they won around $1,800 in funding from the Juneau Economic Development Council to attend the competition.

“It was just great to get that economic support,” Cynthia Shidner, the club’s proud mentor, said in a conversation about the extracurricular activity students are taking to a new level.

The club was formed after third-grader Hunter O’Brien wrote a letter to the makers of Mini Bots, touting an idea of a school-wide competition where students created their own robots using Lego’s Mindstorm computer software.

“He’s the one who got us going,” Shidner, the district’s extended learning opportunities teacher. He was also instrumental in obtaining start-up financial support from school administration for the project.

“I think it’s the first time we’ve had this in Valdez, I believe,” Shidner said. “It was about $700 or so for the club.”

It turns out that Lego isn’t just the old plastic bricks that snap together to build simple structures many older readers grew up with. Not only does modern Lego publish such software, it also has a worldwide robot building competition in place called “First Lego League.” Students joined up and Hermon Hutchens now has its own club.

This year, Alaska students broke new ground by holding its state qualifier virtually across the state. Participating students were the first to hold an entire state qualifier with all participants competed by way of video conferencing.

Team Hermon Hutchens competed using the Polycom system at the college in early December.

“It was really nice support from Prince William Sound Community College,” she said. “That was the very first time they did it virtually. We were kind of the guinea pigs.”

Guinea pigs or not, the Hermon Hutchens students took first place.

“We won the overall championships,” Shidner said, along with prizes in overall robot design and other competitive categories.

Valdez Star photo

The robot building club at Hermon Hutchens cuts lose around the obstacle course it built – along with its robot – after winning a championship qualifier last month.

The team made its robot, then designed an obstacle course of sorts with simple tasks for the robot to perform.

“You have to set up the program on the computer then put it in the robot’s brain,” she said.

The official team was limited by league rules to eight students and two older student advisors, but as many kids as were interested were allowed to participate in the construction and design phase of the project according to Shidner.

The club – open to students in grades third through sixth – had junior high student Robert Shidner and high schooler Kate Farmer on hand as technical advisors.

So how much of this high tech work did the teacher put in?

“I have a tiny bit of that skill,” Shidner said as she laughed, “It’s great, adults are learning from the kids.”


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