It's not your father's Lego set

Kits help meet demand for technology training in the classroom

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EAST PROVIDENCE — On a sunny Thursday morning a few weeks before the start of school, a classroom full of eager learners gathered around a table and watched closely as their instructor guided a small robot through an obstacle course. By the afternoon, the participants would split into pairs and give the course several tries with their own models, learning essential technology skills along the way. On this day, however, teachers were the pupils, hoping to pass on their new skills to their incoming students in the fall.

Twenty teachers, about a quarter of them Catholic school teachers, attended a professional development workshop run by Rhode Island Students of the Future President Rebekah Gendron and board member Mary Johnson at the Gordon School during the week of August 3. The nonprofit organized the workshop to train teachers to work with FIRST LEGO League robotics kits, an educational program and accompanying competition designed to expose students in grades four through eight to robotics technology.

The LEGO program is one of many activities designed to meet increasing demand for interactive technology training as educators across the country call for higher teaching standards in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, better known as STEM subjects. Catholic schools are among those expanding their teaching methods as they work to continue their mission of delivering well-rounded, holistic education to students of all ages.

“The diocese is stressing the importance of STEM, and this does it,” said Julie Nathanson, technology director at St. Rose of Lima School in Warwick and Monsignor Clarke School in Wakefield. “None of these things has any one way to do it. It’s problem solving.” Nathanson has some experience working with robotics teams and is brushing up on her skills before starting a competitive team at St. Rose of Lima in the fall. For other teachers, robots are uncharted territory.

“This is all new to us. We don’t have a program at all,” said Denise Martel, a science teacher at Sacred Heart School in East Providence. “The kids really want to do it, and the parents really want to do it.” Even with enthusiasm from families, however, schools can face difficulties implementing technology-based programs, including financial cost.

“Equipment can be $1,500 to $1,800 for the first year,” explained Johnson, the initial cost of supplying a team with robotics kits. Another difficulty occurs at the administrative level. Even when school faculty are willing and available to run extracurricular robotics programs or implement them in the classroom, they often do not have sufficient background training to teach the technology to students.

This is where RI Students of the Future comes in. In addition to organizing the state-wide FIRST LEGO League championship and bringing together students and professionals at an annual Robot Block Party, the volunteer-run organization sponsors professional development workshops like this one to enable teachers with necessary skills.

John Mongillo, a science teacher at Mercymount Country Day School in Cumberland, plans to introduce LEGO robotics into his classroom in the fall. “My idea behind this is to integrate it with the curriculum. It ties in with Common Core math and Next Generation Science Standards,” he said.

Teachers like Mongillo see the LEGO program as a resource for giving their younger students a jump start on applied science and math. According to a 2011 report by the National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. middle school students scored lower than or equivalent to students in at least 10 other countries on science and math exams. These and similar reports have caused alarm among policymakers who call for better integration of STEM subjects in the curriculum, particularly through interactive applications that reflect real-world problem solving. Educators also encourage early introduction to STEM programs to spur interest among women and minorities, groups severely underrepresented at a career level.

“We’re behind other countries in getting kids into STEM,” Mongillo said. “This gets everyone interested.”

“They’re learning science that may not be in a textbook,” added Johnson. “It’s something the schools need to get behind.”

Ask anyone at All Saints Academy, Middletown, and they’ll tell you Rhode Island Catholic schools are not just supporting the movement for increased science and technology education; they’re leading the push. The pre-K–8 regional school has been incorporating applied math and science into its curriculum for years and implementing after-school programs like a ham radio club, hydroponics lab and Cyberpatriot, an educational cyber defense program organized by the Air Force Association. The All Saints Academy FIRST LEGO League team placed first in the state three times in the past four years and went on to compete with international teams at the World Festival.

Anita Brouse, principal, former science teacher and coach of the FIRST LEGO League team, said the students at All Saints Academy embrace the hands-on programs.

“Kids are fearless. They’re totally unafraid,” she said. “They’ll try any kind of program, whereas adults have all these blocks of ‘this looks complicated.’ ”

All Saints Academy was recently designated as the STEAM school for the Diocese of Providence, a distinction that recognizes the importance of Art alongside Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. The transition from STEM to STEAM programming is a recent movement among educators who support the integration of creativity and design alongside more technical programs.

“We think STEAM education is a better way to educate than STEM,” said Daniel Ferris, superintendent of schools for the diocese. “It brings in creativity. Students engage the arts as a platform or a stage by which they can more readily understand STEM.”

Many Catholic schools around the state receive guidance from the Professional Education Center at Roger Williams University, where Professor Tom Pilecki serves as a national leader in the STEAM movement. More than 70 teachers and principals recently participated in a three-day training program focused on strategies for incorporating more hands-on, project-based learning in the classroom.

“Science education has really taken off in recent years,” said Ferris. “We haven’t always had the facilities and materials, but schools are making those kinds of investments now. It’s a part of a broader movement to strengthen math and science education in Catholic schools.”

According to Brouse, community partnerships have been essential to the growth of the STEAM program at All Saints Academy. She encouraged schools wishing to replicate its success to look for areas where the expertise of parents or volunteers can supplement faculty knowledge.

“I am not at all afraid of inviting people to come in,” she said. “There are a lot of initiatives in the technological world that I know of on a college level that people are doing.”

A partnership with a professor and students at Salve Regina University led to the creation of a hydroponics lab, where students learned how to grow plants without soil, while graduate student volunteers enabled a program that taught middle schoolers how to design their own clothing and purses on the computer.

Parent volunteers organized one of the school’s most successful after-school initiatives, the ham radio club. In June, All Saints Academy announced it was one of six schools in the United States chosen to make contact with the International Space Station. The interaction, scheduled for early 2016, requires the installation of a special antenna and will be preceded by lessons on the space station integrated across several subjects.

“You’re having children work with the mentorship of college-aged-and-beyond experts who have a real affinity and passion for what they’re doing,” said Brouse. “The classroom should be an open door to the world. We’re the facilitators.”

Brouse also spoke about the integration of STEAM programs and religion, saying that Catholic schools have a special opportunity to enhance their message of love and fellowship through technology.

“We feel as a Catholic school we actually have more freedom in embracing our talents and gifts through technology. A great freedom that our public schools don’t have. We find that the Church’s teaching can be brought out even further.”

In addition to using technology in the religion classroom, All Saints Academy faculty seek out ways to incorporate Catholic social teaching into STEAM projects. In 2013, students approached a FIRST LEGO League design challenge by first surveying the elderly parishioners of St. Lucy’s parish about difficulties faced in their everyday lives. When some parishioners responded saying they had trouble with accidentally hitting the gas instead of the brake pedal while driving, students designed a device that would prevent accidental acceleration. The design won first place for research at the World Festival and is currently patent-pending.

Brouse also plans to incorporate Catholic teaching on the environment as described in Pope Francis’ new encyclical, “Laudato Si’,” into this year’s FIRST LEGO League theme of “Trash Trek.”

“We’ll take the whole idea of global stewardship and climate change and really work it into the LEGO League theme of ‘Trash Trek,’ ” she said. “Kids learn through their actions they’re taking care of the world. We bring in the technology to really enhance the religion in many different ways and avenues.”

Back at the Gordon School, despite being new to the LEGO robotics program, many teachers were already envisioning ways the activity would educate beyond technology training.

“I’m just anticipating getting the kids to sit in groups with different opinions and ideas,” said Paula Woodmansee, a fourth and fifth grade science teacher at Good Shepherd School in Woonsocket. “They learn life skills.” Those life skills are referred to as “gracious professionalism” at FIRST LEGO League events, where teams are scored on their behavior toward other competitors and each other.

“It’s a lot of fun, I can say. It’s whatever you make of it,” said Bobby Pelletier, a former member of the Our Lady of Mercy FIRST LEGO League team and senior at Bishop Hendricken High School. Pelletier has returned to help coach the Our Lady of Mercy team since graduating and assisted RI Students of the Future at the workshop.

“My last year [at Our Lady of Mercy] they started adding programming into the curriculum. It’s a valuable skill to have,” said Pelletier. “With the robots, you program, and you see it happen.”

As the workshop approached noon, the teachers were able to see the results of three days of effort as miniature robots zipped around the tabletop course completing tasks. The room waited silently as one robot, per its programming, approached a small block, then broke into cheers as the robot successfully lifted the block on its arms. As it reversed direction, however, it collided with a side wall, and its owners returned to make adjustments.

“Now I know what my fourth graders feel when the light bulb clicks on and they get something,” said Woodmansee, making adjustments to her own robot on a laptop.

At least 10 teams competed from Catholic schools at last year’s FIRST LEGO League state competition. Additional teams are planned for this year’s qualifying event in November.