A sky-blue robot about the width of an Oreo cookie cruised along the classroom table.
Six-year-old Emily grabbed the robot, named Ozobot, and placed it on a white piece of paper, where she had drawn thick lines with a brown marker.
Ozobot immediately began tracing the marker lines, and Emily grinned. “I like it moving around a lot!” Emily said.
That Wednesday afternoon in an E.K. Powe Elementary School classroom, kindergarteners and first-graders were learning about robots and computer code. E.K. Powe’s Robotics Club happens on Wednesdays throughout the academic year, and every nine weeks, a new cohort, from kindergarten through fifth grade, gets to participate and learn how robots “think.”
This type of technology workshop would usually come with a price tag for parents, either in the form of an afterschool program or a summer camp. But this academic year, funding from Duke’s Doing Good in the Neighborhood employee giving campaign helped pay for Robotics Club instruction and supplies such as journals, circuit lights and copper conductive tape.
TechTerra Education, an organization focused on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) literacy, leads the Wednesday Robotics Club and brings the robots and other materials to E.K. Powe at no cost to students and their families.
“Most of the kids that come here during the day wouldn’t have had the opportunity otherwise,” said Monica White, an instructional assistant at E.K. Powe and a TechTerra teacher. “They’re having fun and they’re gaining critical thinking and collaboration skills. They’re working together as a team.”
Most of the students are learning about robotics, coding, circuitry and 3D printing for the first time. That Wednesday, 18 students gathered around Susan Wells, founder and CEO of TechTerra Education and former E.K. Powe assistant principal, as she talked about robots. A tiny wooden box with a smiley face, called Cubetto, slowly made its way across the floor as the students watched in awe.
“Raise your hand if you have a brain,” Wells said to the students.
Everyone raised their hand. A young student exclaimed, “Everybody!”
“Robots have a brain, did you know that?” Wells said. “Their brain is called a microprocessor.”
The students discussed types of robots that they’ve seen before, such as robots with arms that work in factory assembly lines, or robots that vacuum the floor.
“It’s amazing the things that we as humans can tell robots to do,” Wells added.
Then, the students were each handed a piece of paper that included a symbol, such as a forward arrow or right arrow. That was their individual “line of code.” Out in the hallway, they responded to their line of code by walking forward or turning. Afterward, each student took a turn playing with different types of robots or sitting at a makerspace table, where they used their imaginations to build items out of blocks and plastic pieces.
At the end of the nine-week Robotics Club, each student will create their own robot out of recyclables that “solves” a world problem.
“There are tons of kids that don’t know this technology exists,” Wells said after the class. “The world is changing, and I’d like to think our kids can live in this space. (In the future,) it is our 8-year-olds that are going to make the ethical decisions about coding, robots, virtual reality, and I want them to understand this space.”
Make a one-time or recurring gift today to Doing Good in the Neighborhood that will directly benefit school programs like the E.K. Powe Robotics Club.
Story and photos by April Dudash