BEMS robotics club spurs students’ interest in science, math

Legos have moved from the playroom into the classroom. No longer toys, they’ve now tools for educators. And they’re still fun, as Böblingen Elementary/Middle School students discovered May 16 during the school’s first-ever robotics tournament. The tournament was the culmination of a robotics club that began in January for students in grades five through eight.

Thanks to the BEMS Parent Teachers Association, approximately 40 students were able to participate in the First Lego League, a worldwide robotics program for elementary and middle school students that is designed to get them excited about science and technology.

“They’re learning to program computers and to work together as a group,” said Jane Bernasconi, the PTA vice president for enrichment, who created and coordinated the after-school activity.

While the school provided the robotic kits, the PTA organized after-school sessions, found a donor to provide the game board, and sponsored several contests.
“We had a small competition in March, and this is the final competition,” Bernasconi added.

The competition, called the Food Factor challenge, is based on a real-world scientific topic, in this case, food safety. The students worked in teams to build and program autonomous robots that maneuvered through tasks having to do with the safe delivery of food.

The object was to gain points while completing as many of the tasks as possible over three 2.5 minute rounds. “There are 14 tasks … it is impossible to do all of them. They had to vote as a group to choose their tasks and work as a group to program their robots accordingly,” Bernasconi said.

John Cramer, a staff sergeant reservist with Marines Forces Europe G3/5, volunteered to mentor and advise the students while they developed their solutions.

“The kids have done it all … I’m just here to answer questions,” said Cramer, a former computer support technician who said he has worked with electronics and computers for as long as he can remember.

But there were a few minor rough spots that had nothing to do with technical expertise of the coaches or mentors, according to sixth-grader Duncan Kerr, a member of Team Four-Five, the largest team, with seven students.
“It was actually kind of confusing. We had too many people … that made it a little hard to work,” Duncan said.

Nevertheless, it did not interfere with the FLL’s concept of “learning together.”
“We learned about teamwork. We did learn a lot about programming things on the computer — we also learned some of the annoyances of computers,” Duncan said.
BEMS Assistant Principal Jason Sheedy, who coached Team Six, the ultimate winner of the competition, learned something, as well.
“Patience,” he said, with a laugh.

The after-school program fits into the Department of Defense Education Activity’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics initiative that kicked off this year with  pilot courses in biotechnology, gaming technology, green technology and robotics engineering courses offered at 12 schools in the U.S., Europe and the Pacific regions.

According to the DODEA website, DODEA will continue to “spin-off components to foster a focus on STEM” in all grades. As part of that initiative, BEMS school administrators plan to introduce Lego Robotics in some of its computer application classes next year. “Our long-term goal is a robotics class,” Sheedy said.