SCHOOLS, STUDENTS | March 5, 2020
How Four Wadsworth Elementary Students are Pursuing their Passion for STEM
Nicholas D., an eighth-grade student at James Wadsworth Elementary School, wants to be a video game designer when he grows up. Seventh-grade students Dylan L. and Kenneth B. want to pursue mechanical engineering and robotics. And seventh-grade student Uhmyah B. isn’t quite sure yet what career path is right for her, but she knows it will most likely involve her passion for science. Together, alongside their teacher and coach Michelle Warden, the four students make up the Robotigers, Wadsworth’s small yet powerful FIRST LEGO League robotics team.
In January, the team competed in the FIRST Lego League state competition against other robotics teams across Illinois—the culmination of months of construction, research, and computer programming work. To prepare, the students first had to follow entirely-visual instructions to build their LEGO models correctly. This came naturally for Kenneth, since building LEGO sets was one of his favorite hobbies growing up.
“I joined LEGO League because I thought it would be a great way to build structures since I had multiple LEGO sets growing up,” he said. “I used to build for hours and I could complete 1,000-piece LEGO sets in two days.”
After working together on construction, the team put their computer science skills to work by programming their robot to carry out different missions. For example, they might need their robot to pick up a stack of boxes and drop them off in a specific part of the playing field. Because the missions usually have multiple steps and everything is coded in advance on the computer, multiple rounds of troubleshooting have been key. Ms. Warden says her students are so dedicated to the project that they didn’t want to stick to just practicing after school.
“These students have a lot on their plates and yet they still make time for this because they enjoy robotics so much,” she said. “They’ll come in during their lunch and recess time and will even track me down when they want to work on their robots.”
On top of the construction and coding, being part of the robotics team also means completing a research project that develops a solution to a real-world problem that ties in with the FIRST LEGO League theme: building a better world. The four students worked together to identify an issue in their Woodlawn neighborhood—an abundance of vacant lots—and brainstormed a plethora of potential solutions.
“Vacant lots are a problem in our community because they’re a waste of space and are not nice to look at,” said Dylan. “We also learned from the adults in our community that they bring down property values, so we definitely want to change that.”
Nicholas suggested that some of the lots could be turned into public parks and community gardens. Uhmyah decided the community needed a gymnastics center. Dylan thought the vacant space could be transformed into homeless shelters or daycare centers. Through their in-depth research into both the issue itself and different solutions, the students learned that the same core values they were using as part of the robotics team could be used to better their community. Dylan summarized his team’s work using three Is: inclusion, innovation, and impact.
As Wadsworth’s technology specialist, Ms. Warden has been incorporating the same problem-based learning into her STEM classes, as well as helping her students gain exposure to coding and programming through platforms like Kodu and Tynker. Creating a robust curriculum that allows students to explore multiple areas of STEM while in elementary school is especially important now that computer science is a CPS high school graduation requirement, a decision that the Robotigers support.
“I think making computer science a graduation requirement is a good thing because computer science teaches you how to code and how to use computers,” Kenneth said. “By taking a computer science class, I think you can thrive doing a new higher level of computer work than you were able to do before.”
By putting in months of work together, the Robotigers have become more than engineers and computer programmers—they’ve also become close friends. As they continue to work toward becoming the next generation of STEM leaders, these students have the potential to engineer positive change for their community and Chicago as a whole—one vacant lot at a time.
From Left to Right: Wadsworth Elementary Students Kenneth B., Uhmyah B., Nicholas D., and Dylan L.