A group of students at East Pointe Elementary is walking the halls with a little more swagger, the result of a new program that has taken off in a big way.
Twelve fourth-grade students, members of the inaugural East Pointe Elementary Robotics Team, recently finished as runners-up at the state VEX Robotics Championships. They fell just one point shy of having the chance to be named state champions.
East Pointe Principal Josh Ray said the accomplishment caught the attention of their peers.
“These kids have achieved a kind of rock star status (at school). They have followers. Kids want to be them,” Ray said.
Sherlett Myers, a fourth-grade science teacher and one of two coaches who took on the challenge of launching the robotics team, said although she knew that students would enjoy a robotics team, she could never have predicted the impact it would have on team members.
“They have grown as leaders,” Myers said. “I think I was most proud of them at their interview (at competition). They were eager to share … and answer those questions.”
Kristin Motley, third-grade science teacher and robotics coach, said she saw members of the team experience “tremendous growth” in the areas of problem solving and teamwork as a result of their participation. She also touted the VEX Robotics community for their support of one another.
“Everybody works as a big team,” Motley said, recalling a competition at which a competing team loaned the East Pointe team a controller when theirs was not working.
The initial vision for the program was a team of eight students, Myers said. But after receiving more than 60 applications from students who wished to participate, a few more spots were added.
The final team was comprised of 12 members; nine boys and three girls.
With so many students submitting applications, Motley said the selection became a surprising first hurdle that had to be jumped in starting the team.
Fourth-grade students Micah Cowart and Hayes Whitson said they wanted to join the team because of their interest in driving radio control cars.
“I usually work well with others and enjoy being on a team,” Whitson added.
Motley said submitted applications were scored with rubric, a scoring guide ensuring consistent criteria for evaluation. But other factors were also taken into consideration, including writing skills, the ability to meet weekly, teamwork skills, and an aptitude and enjoyment for working with VEX pieces already in use in science classrooms.
Both Cowart and Whitson fulfilled the role of “driver” during the season along with team member Alex Vanderwatt, who said he joined because of his love for science, driving things and working with others to solve problems.
While everyone contributed when it came to building the robots, team members contributed in different ways at competitions, based on their demonstrated strengths.
Two other team members, Drew Williams and Noah Myers were responsible for much of the team’s coding.
Williams explained he enjoyed working with the blocks and variables involved in coding the VEX robot, changing them based on what the robot needed to do. He added that much of the coding work involved learning by trial and error.
In addition to his coding responsibilities, Myers also kept the team notebook. With future plans to be a coder/programmer, possibly working with prosthetics or other robots designed to help people, Myers said he learned many lessons by being responsible for the task.
Faith Short, East Pointe assistant principal, said today’s employers are often looking for soft skills like the ability to collaborate, being a team player and problem solving in addition to academic skills an applicant may possess. She said participating in robotics has facilitated that type of learning as well as encouraging team members to think outside the box.
Ray said the creation of the robotics team was a “next logical step” stemming from a vision for science education at East Pointe Elementary. As a part of a new curriculum, Myers and Motley were already using robotics pieces in their classrooms to build simple machines and complete classroom projects.
While educators did not know what to expect from the new endeavor, Ray said they learned something valuable.
“If you don’t put a ceiling on kids, then they will amaze you at what they can do,” he said.
Myers and Motley said they are in the process of building next year’s team, using this year’s team members as mentors in the process. No current team members will be returning. They are all slated to "graduate" from East Pointe at the end of the year.
Ray said the school hopes to grow the program, but what that looks like remains to be seen.
“We want to offer (robotics) to as many kids as possible, but I don’t want to do it at the expense of doing it well,” Ray said.