Integrated into the curriculum for the first time this year
By Jill Kruse
Witness Editorial Assistant
WEBSTER CITY — “Students have been very excited and energized by the projects and challenges!” said teacher Terry Meyers, of the fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders participating in the new robotics curriculum at St. Thomas Aquinas School in Webster City this academic year.
“They have shown themselves to be regular innovators and problem solvers,” commented the teacher. “I’ve had students reaching beyond what I know how to teach them, so we’ve had to learn from each other.”
This school year is the first in which St. Thomas Aquinas has offered its robotics curriculum, now a standard part of each of the science courses that Meyers teaches at the Catholic elementary school. The goal is to provide students with a strong STEM education — a type of learning that integrates the four disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics while utilizing real-world applications.
Students in the sixth grade at St. Thomas Aquinas began work on a comprehensive robotics project in October. They focused first on design and construction, then later on programming their robots for autonomous movement. In late November, students incorporated sensors into their programming. Some sensors allowed the robots to identify colors; others distance, in order to navigate a simple course.
“It’s always a challenge, and once finished, it’s so much fun to see them work,” said student Aiden Rahe, 12, of the robots he and his classmates have been building and programming in class this year.
Rahe and his fellow sixth-graders will continue to explore robotics during the remainder of the school year, with the ultimate goal being the design of a robot that can navigate any maze layout. In the spring, Meyers said he hopes to have students work on alternative designs — such as those for a crane arm and a conveyor system — as well.
Fifth-graders at St. Thomas Aquinas have been busy with robotics projects of their own this school year. In December, the students designed robots with components to complete specific tasks, and this spring, they will have their first introduction to programming a robot that can move autonomously.
Students in the fourth grade built cars and simple machines this past fall and were also introduced to the basics of programming alongside the fifth-graders. In May, these students will attempt their first complete robot design in preparation for what they will be doing next school year.
Meyers said his students take their work seriously and concentrate on solving their tasks just as one would when trying to solve a puzzle. But his students also have fun while working on their projects. The sections they most enjoy, he said, are the units on construction and design.
“It’s easier to see your accomplishments if you can physically touch it,” he said. “Children are always more interested in experiencing the world with their hands, more than screens, symbols or even imagination.”
St. Thomas Aquinas student Jillian Symens, 12, agrees. “It’s fun to learn about robotics,” she said, “because we can have a hands-on experience.”
Duane Siepker, the school’s principal, said Meyers has created a “stir of excitement” at St. Thomas Aquinas with his approach to STEM education this school year.
“Mr. Meyers goes the extra mile,” Siepker said, “piquing not only the interest, but love, for STEM education” among the school’s students.
Introducing girls and boys to STEM at a young age is key, said Siepker, noting studies by the Center on Education Policy which have shown that the early years of a student’s education are the most formative and most critical in shaping their interest in STEM courses and careers.
“I undertook this (new curriculum),” Meyers said, “because it challenges my students in new ways and offers a unique experience for the future careers they may choose.”
Most importantly, he said, through its trial and error approach, STEM curriculum teaches essential life skills such as resilience and the ability to rise above challenges.
“The problem solving involved with STEM projects and curriculum empowers students in coping, learning from and overcoming failure,” he said. “I don’t think all of my students will go into a field involving robotics. But I do know they all will have experience in analyzing failure to create success.”
Students at St. Thomas Aquinas School in Webster City work on programming a robot to navigate a course. Robotics were integrated into the school’s curriculum for the first time this year. (Contributed photo)