It's reading, writing, 'rithmetic and robots in Wichita Falls ISD

As it turns out, artificial intelligence will be used to tweak students' not-so-artificial intelligence at this younger age level.

by Lana Sweeten-Shults, Times Record News, Wichita Falls, Texas / July 27, 2017 0
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(TNS) -- While some students might accuse one or two of their teachers of being robots, they might not be so quick to judge them next school year, when some of those teachers enter nerd-cool mode and start to helm robotics clubs.

The Wichita Falls ISD is launching something new in the 2017-18 school year -- Danger, Will Robinson! -- as the district launches elementary school-level robotics clubs.

Not that robotics is new in the district.

Such clubs and related courses have been around at the high school level, and more recently, at the middle-school level. But those efforts are now being expanded to the elementary schools.

As it turns out, artificial intelligence will be used to tweak students' not-so-artificial intelligence at this younger age level.

Before he became the superintendent, Michael Kuhrt helmed the roll out of elementary after-school clubs, which ranged from cooking clubs to critter clubs.

"It was anything to get the kids involved. ... We want kids to be interested in school," said Peter Griffiths, Wichita Falls ISD associate superintendent. The idea was that the more students are involved, even in an after-school setting, the more they'll be invested in their campus.

It was a program Griffiths helped organize after his arrival.

"In 2016-17, I asked for volunteers from any campus that wanted to be involved in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math)."

That's when the district introduced littleBits kits, which are easy-to-use electronic building blocks that can be fashioned into everything from a remote-controlled car to a smart home device.

"It's a very basic introduction to robotics and coding. ... So we bought them, and it was introduced on five campuses, Milam, Southern Hills, Lamar, Washington and Crockett."

Those after-school littleBits robotics-powered clubs started meeting. Then earlier this year, on Jan. 26, the district partnered with Midwestern State University for the first MacGyver Fair. The event, at the Wichita Falls Museum of Art, was designed to promote the school district's integration into the classroom of science, technology, engineering, art and math, or STEAM, which is STEM 2.0, so to speak -- the next evolution of this educational focus.

More than 300 people showed up.

University students from multiple colleges dropped in to show Wichita Falls ISD elementary kids everything from 3D printers to gyroscope robot kits. And Wichita Falls ISD students participated in a science fair of sorts, creating vinegar-spewing volcanoes, autonomous drawing robots and more.

MSU and Denise Simmons, the university's assistant professor of educational leadership and technology, developed a rubric to judge the projects and award schools for their STEAM works.

"That thing was so packed," Griffiths said of the MacGyver Fair. "We said, 'OK, we need a bigger venue and we need to do more.'"

Griffiths was familiar with robotics in the classroom when he was a principal in the Houston area, he said. One of his science teachers started getting into robots, and Griffiths' son participated back then in robot building at his elementary school.

He also knew about the All-Earth Ecobot challenge, an engineering competition that celebrates innovation.

He approached the Region 9 Education Service Center about getting something similar involving robotics started in the Wichita Falls ISD.

"'We do something similar," Region 9 told him, "but Wichita Falls does not participate in that.' I said, 'Well, that's got to change.'"

So the district is taking the next step and is partnering with Region 9 in bringing more robotics kits to those original five elementary school campuses, along with Sheppard and Haynes, which also wanted to join in.

They will be getting Lego Mindstorms kits. Students will be able to create and command their own robotic creatures, vehicles, machines -- whatever their mind can invent.

A training session is slated for Aug. 8 to get teachers trained and ready to helm these robotics clubs, with the next STEAM fair slated for Jan. 11.

With the addition of robotics to the elementary campuses, Griffiths said the big picture is starting to come into place and connecting the elementary schools to middle schools, high schools and the soon-to-open Career Education Center, where the district's students can take more advanced engineering and robotics classes.

"It's a big deal," Griffiths said as he glances to whiteboards in his office scribbled with big-picture plans for the district over the next few years, a big chunk of which involves STEAM and the Career Education Center. " ... We're just trying to get everything lined up."

Follow Times Record News senior editor/reporter Lana Sweeten-Shults on Twitter @LanaSweetenShul.

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©2017 the Times Record News (Wichita Fallas, Texas), distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.