Robotics: A Hands on Path to a Lightning Fast Future

In education, schools prepare students to succeed in the future they will inherit.

To that end, it is helpful to know that supercomputers surpassed the computational ability of the human brain in 2012. Given the exponential rate of technological growth, scientists predict that the average laptop will have that “super” level of computational power by 2020. And by 2050, that average laptop will have the same computing power as the entire human race – or nine billion people. And the processing chip that powers the device will also be small enough to implant in a human brain.

Saint Andrew’s is moving expeditiously to prepare students for that lightning-fast future. Our Design Technology program is a core ingredient in the mix. The school-wide curriculum expansion, under way over the past several years, is designed to deliver on one of the school’s key Vision 2020 goals:  “to create innovative teaching and learning experiences where students have the freedom to explore learning as an adventure.”
 
Saint Andrew’s Chief Information Officer, Elias Bassil, has been leading the charge in developing Design Tech. A member of the faculty for 17 years, Mr. Bassil has a degree in mathematics, as well as Master’s degrees in computer science, engineering, and IT management.
 
While his current IT role has lately taken him out of the classroom, at his core Mr. Bassil will always be a teacher, and one whose approach is deeply rooted in a philosophy of learning by doing.
 
“We all learn kinesthetically,” he said. “If you have advanced degrees in medicine or engineering, you are never going to sit back and learn by rote all that you need to know. You have to learn by doing.”

“In the past, our school systems have always taken an apprentice approach to teaching. At some point, beginners shadowed someone who’d mastered a skill, and learned from them. But then, when we got to the industrial age, we wanted to have folks move in assembly lines, if you will, so we had to form these classrooms where kids sit in rows and columns and all follow a common set of directions. In this, I think, we have failed the kinesthetic learners,” Mr. Bassil said.

“We are now in the age of technology, and technology is allowing us to shift yet again. We are better positioned to allow those kids who can’t sit still for an hour to move and shift around and discover. And after that hands on experience, they are much more likely to sit at a desk or a computer to figure out what they couldn’t in the field, to solve a real problem rather than a theoretical problem.”

That real-world experience is baked into the goals for the new Dr. Albert Cohen Family Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, which has been under construction on campus during the recent school year and is scheduled to open this fall.

Spurred by the generous leadership gift from Dr. Albert Cohen, a Saint Andrew’s parent and board member, the entrepreneurial center is envisioned as a “space where students learn and develop entrepreneurial skills through a combination of academic programs and immersive experiences.”

The state of the art facility encompasses 13,366 square feet. It will include flexible spaces, a media center, a 180-seat auditorium, a student commons, a tech support center and laboratories dedicated to the instruction of robotics, computer science and design technology.

As the pace of technological advancement has continued to accelerate, building educational muscle mass in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) has become a goal in schools nationwide. Mr. Bassil hopes the new center will be a platform for building and stretching those muscles even further. “We did not want to limit the work of the center to robotics. It’s all about thinking, designing, problem-solving, innovation,” he said. “The idea is to start by identifying a problem or a need and then take it all the way--from the problem, to an idea for a solution, to design and testing, to production, to a business and marketing plan, and finally to a plan to distribute it, sell it, or donate it,” Mr. Bassil explained.

“Ideally, if my dream for the center becomes true, in the Upper School we will be connecting all of the subject areas. I have a hard time even saying STEM now, because I don’t want it to be limited to just those four areas. We should also want to add Arts, so then it would be STEAM, and Social Studies because so many of society’s problems are identified there, so perhaps we should be calling it STEAMS.”

One of Mr. Bassil’s first STEAM undertakings was “Eat Your Kart Out,” a one-week immersion program that offers about 16 Saint Andrew’s students the opportunity to build a go-kart and then race it. It is an example of the kind of kinesthetic learning experience Mr. Bassil believes can be so valuable. Working as teams, with mentoring from Mr. Bassil, other faculty members and advisers to the robotics club, the students have five days to build an electric go-kart from the ground up. If they can get it done in that time, they get to race it. The basic ingredients are contained in a kit, but participants get full exposure to the world of mechanics and engineering. Amendments to the body design and wheels, and various other tweaks that optimize vehicle look and performance, are the result of team creativity and collaboration. After field and performance testing, the karts are prominently displayed on campus for several months.

Building the Design Technology program has occupied Mr. Bassil’s every extra moment for the better part of the last five years. As much energy as he has invested, he is also the first to point to all the help and support that has come from all parts of the Saint Andrew’s community, including students, parents, administrators, and alumni. The program now has roots from JK-12 and also out into the community through the robotics club, “The Dirty Mechanics.” The club is hosted at Saint Andrew’s but also connects with other schools, students, and adult mentors.

Starting with Lego Robots
The Design Tech path begins in the Lower School with Legos. You know, those sharp-edged little plastic bricks that can cause soul-crushing pain when you inadvertently step on one barefoot. Today Legos have their own movie franchise and theme park, but at Saint Andrew’s, Legos (and more specifically their robot, kit-building cousins, like Little Bits coding kits) have become the initial building blocks in the Lower School tech curriculum.

Mr. Taylor Bergman is the engineering and robotics instructor for the Lower School, which began the new program in 2015. Mr.  Bergman came to Saint Andrew’s from Fort Myers, where he was the K-5 engineering educator for the Lee County school district and helped develop some of the curricula there.

JK-5 children get regular classroom exposure to this exciting and very hands-on world of technology. It starts with 30 minutes every 10 days for the youngest children, increasing by grade up to once a week for 60 minutes for fifth graders.

“My goal is to show the students how to use a process to get a better result,” said Mr. Bergman. “With our younger students, I am trying to introduce them to different types of technology and get them comfortable. I want them to use their hands and brains to meet a target goal. As they get older, instead of winging it, we use the engineering design process: Ask, Imagine, Plan, Create, Improve.”

Recently in Mr. Bergman’s class, student projects to design emojis were displayed on one wall. In the center of the room, a group of very active and energetic second graders was noisily engaged in a hands on, skill-development and problem-solving exercise designed to help them understand how to compete respectfully. Another handful of students was engaged with tasks on iPads. And at the back of the room, two 3-D printers whirred, making parts for one of the robot kits. While 3D printers still seem like magic to many adults, for these elementary students, a printer that makes whatever parts they need is not all that amazing. It’s just another tool, like an iPad, or a pen, that has always been in their world.

“My students are fearless about technology,” Mr. Bergman said. “The first year we had the 3D printer, I gave the kids a big tutorial about it, and they just flew through it. That happens a lot. I’ll plan something and expect it to take four classes for them to grasp it, and they finish in two because they are so comfortable with it. They regularly exceed my expectations.”

Mr. Bergman added that one Saint Andrew’s’ great strengths is the parents and how supportive they are. He said parents have not only suggested some great kits and tools to consider, but in several cases they have also purchased and generously contributed the kits for his classes, enhancing his ability to test-drive new teaching tools and to increase hands-on time for the students.

Hands-on is a key ingredient. Sometimes, perhaps too often, students who can’t sit still, who have trouble maintaining focus in a classroom, may be diagnosed with hyperactivity.
 
In recent years, the percentage of children ages 4-17 nationwide diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder has continued to climb, with some estimates near 10 percent. But in-depth evaluations at the National Reading Diagnostics Institute of children with an ADHD diagnosis have shown that often these children “are simply kinesthetic learners; they need to engage in gross motor (large-muscle) activity to learn best.”

As currently designed, the active and tactile nature of the Design Tech curriculum is particularly well adapted to meet this need.

“Often, as a society, we give children medicine to calm them down rather than working with the child,” said Mr. Bassil. “As a teacher, I don’t have a problem with students who can’t sit still for an hour. Just get up and move if you need to…. None of us are actually built to sit still for a long time, but we have learned to conform to that expectation.

“I’ve experienced this situation with my brother, who I always believed was much more intelligent than I was, but the education system didn’t do well for him because he couldn’t sit still. I have two daughters. One of them was on the robotics team here. We noticed when she was two years old, she would not allow someone else to fasten her car seat belt for her. She insisted on doing it; she wanted to touch it and hear it click into place. She has always been a very tactile learner.”

Mr. Bassil added, “There are children who just need to move, who learn best by doing. That’s part of what led me to work on developing this program. Also, for those who don’t always test well, this is another way to uncover their intelligence and stimulate their curiosity.”

As children move into the Middle School, the design tech curriculum at present focuses on exploratory periods in the morning where students work to assemble more advanced Lego robots. Wherever possible, Mr. Bassil said, efforts are made to tie elements of the projects back to science and math concepts being taught in the classroom.

Mr. Bergman said that is true at the elementary level as well. “I think all specialist teachers make as great an effort as possible to connect with the IB program,” he said. “We meet, every single unit, to see how we can connect what we’re doing back to what’s being taught in the classroom.

Mr. Bassil said there are conversations about enhancing the exploratory approach in the Middle School, possibly through a trimester, sequencing plan in which groups of students rotate through a design engineering class. That could give all children some exposure to Design Tech. Next steps are still under discussion, he said, but the goal is to find the best way “to connect the dots from the Lower to Middle to Upper School.”

Computer Science as a Path to Critical Thinking Skills
The 2016-17 academic year marked the first, full year for Design Tech as part of the Upper School curriculum. Some 30 students took classes this year from Eric Van Voorhis (’02), a Scot who has returned to teach computer science at his alma mater. A graduate of Florida Atlantic University, Mr. Van Voorhis previously worked as IT director for Adopt-A-Family of the Palm Beaches, which provides a continuum of housing and supportive services for some of the county’s most vulnerable families.

Currently, there is an Introduction to Design engineering class and an Advanced Design course, stated Mr. Van Voorhis. He also teaches game design and computer science AP. The design course, he said, “encompasses more than robotics. We cover classical design, digital design, and then we have architecture or robotics that may or may not be an offshoot of the computer side of design. Design really is a way to approach a problem that you break down into actionable steps and determine how well you did. It’s a critical thinking skill.”

Mr. Van Voorhis is excited about moving into the new entrepreneurial center, particularly for the lab environment it will provide. For many students, there are lab options now, in art or math or photography, places students can go in a free period to pursue their interests. But he said his classroom also serves as the design tech lab, and since he usually teaches there five of the seven periods a day, there isn’t very much time for his students to get the lab time they want.

“I don’t know what the adverse effects of that are on a student’s motivation,” he said, “but I am certain their motivation will be higher in the entrepreneurial center.”  

In his classes, students build robots, design computer applications, and write and edit the code required to make things work the way they want. In addition to the engineering and design skills the students are developing, the school itself gets some immediate and very valuable benefits in return.

“When we wanted to get a larger 3D printer, it was $4,000 fully assembled,” said Mr. Bassil. “But if we get it disassembled and do it ourselves, it costs just $900. So that’s what we did. The kids built it, and not only did they build it, anything that goes wrong with it, they can fix.”

Indeed, the computer science students have built a reputation as a kind of internal Geek Squad for teachers who encounter classroom technology challenges. “I don’t have to call repair people to fix our things,” said Mr. Bassil. “Our kids know exactly what to do.”

And for students hungry for more, the robotics club provides additional challenges. A number of the students who take Upper School computer science classes also participate in “The Dirty Mechanics,” a community robotics club that Saint Andrew’s helps to sponsor and has hosted on campus for the past three years. The club is a participating member in an international high school robotics competition known as FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). FIRST was founded in 1989 by inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen (the Segway inventor), with inspiration and assistance from physicist and MIT professor emeritus Woodie Flowers.

Each robotics club has six weeks over the winter to design and build a robot from scratch in order to complete the tasks defined as part of that year’s competition. The robots may weigh up to 120 pounds and have to be capable of performing multiple tasks (collecting things, scoring goals, delivering parts, climbing ropes, defending themselves from other competing robots, etc.). Each year’s competition has a unique theme and challenges. The first competition was held in 1992 in a high school gymnasium in New Hampshire and attracted 28 teams. Merely 25 years later, more than 75,000 students and 19,000 mentors from more than 24 countries participate in competitions that are streamed live by NASA TV.

$50 Million in scholarships through FIRST
The Dirty Mechanics were first organized about nine years ago. Inventor Dave Ferguson, who holds a number of patents in the radio technology field, and his wife Ellen, a senior software engineer, were co-founders. Their daughter and son have both been on the team.

This past year, there were 41 members of the team. Fourteen were students at Saint Andrew’s and the rest were from other public and private schools, or homeschooled. Part of the value of the diverse club membership is that it enriches the student network and enhances the pool of mentors. In addition to Mr. Ferguson and his wife and Mr. Bassil, mentors include structural engineers, website developers, manufacturing executives, graphic designers, mechanical engineers, medical software architects, scientists, and college students who participated in the robotics competition in high school.

“Where else can you get that kind of expertise gathered in one place to help these kids,” said Lisa Byrne. She is the group’s business planning and marketing mentor. She is also the mother of Myles Byrne ‘16, the Saint Andrew’s student who captained the team for three of his four high school years and helped lead the team to compete at the world championships in two of those years. Myles is currently studying electrical engineering at UCLA, one of the top schools in the country for that discipline.

“I really feel the robotics club was a big part of what helped him get in there,” Mrs. Byrne said. “Myles has always been a good teammate, but his leadership skills really blossomed as team captain. Beyond technical skills, he learned vital soft skills and leadership skills, from time management and communication to presentation skills and how to be a better teacher.”

Myles also earned a $20,000 college scholarship offered through Florida Power & Light’s foundation along the way. Both his father, Stewart, and Mrs. Byrne have continued as mentors in the program even though they no longer have a child in the club. “A lot of these mentors arrived with their kids but stayed on when the kids graduated because it’s such an exciting program,” said Mrs. Byrne. “It’s exciting to teach kids new skills and see them grow. And it’s so hands on.”

She noted that “there are $50 million in scholarships available to students who have been on a FIRST team” and that members of the Dirty Mechanics alone have racked up more than $570,000 in scholarships since the club began competing.

As a parent, Mrs. Byrne believes the investment Saint Andrew’s is making in design tech could not be more on target. “We have so many things controlled by new technologies,” she said. “The people who know how to manage and develop those technologies are going to come from programs like the one at Saint Andrew’s, where the students are being prepared to jump right into college programs. It was fascinating for me to go to the UCLA open houses and see the degree that they emphasize hands-on learning. My reaction was, oh my gosh, that’s all Myles has done during his four years at Saint Andrew’s. He can just jump right in here.”

Mr. Van Voorhis said one of his goals as Design Tech evolves is to have computer science literacy become a more fundamental part of every child’s education at Saint Andrew’s.

“My goal would be to have something like computer science principles be a mandatory course (for all students) where we look at social, economic and cultural impacts of various technological changes,” he said. “I’m really excited about the possibilities of the technology center to help enable this.”

As Mr. Van Voorhis sees it, “computer science is becoming a component of everything,” and even those who plan to enter a field not traditionally associated with computer science (think music, painting, agriculture, medicine, etc.) will need to understand the computer science that increasingly drives that discipline in order to succeed at it.”

“Even today,” he said, “I don’t know that anyone can even think of an economical endeavor that doesn’t rely in some way on computer science.”
 
Back

About Us

A non-profit, independent, co-educational school for grades JK - 12, Saint Andrew's School is both a private day and boarding school located in Boca Raton, educating the best students from across Palm Beach County, Florida, the United States, and throughout the world in the Episcopal tradition.
Copyright © 2017 - Saint Andrew’s School