Robots, LEGOs Grow Tomorrow's Engineers Today In Tampa Bay Middle Schools

Robots are taking over Greco Middle School in Temple Terrace, teaching kids exciting new ways to learn subjects like math and problem-solving.

Elizabeth Heli's students work on many similar projects throughout the school year in her massive engineering classroom, varying from cardboard chairs to robots that can recognize and make basic decisions.

These projects all come thanks to the STEM program (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) that started in Hillsborough County about three years ago.

"The idea was to create a cohort of teachers and students that were focused on STEM and then the specific focus of the STEM academies," Heli says. "It allowed us to have that communication that we needed to build the connections between the courses and the classes so that it made sense what they (the students) were learning and why they were learning it."

The STEM program has a specific focus at each of four Hillsborough middle schools. Greco Middle focuses on engineering, while Madison, Buchanan and McLane middle schools focus on aerospace, biotechnology and robotics, respectively. And recruitment starts early.

"We go to the elementary schools," Heli explains. "We go to our 'feeder' schools and we tell them (the students) what the program is about."

Teachers try to get kids interested early, especially if they are good students in the areas of math and science. While those students may perform well in elementary school, the same students may lose their drive to succeed in those areas in middle school.

"They can just thrive in a class like this and then have the connection from this class to their math class and their science class," Heli says. "It's not a club. It's full-blown school."

The program is by application only and students interested must perform well on the FCAT with a score of level three or higher.

The students stay with the same teacher for all three years of middle school for their math, science and engineering classes.

"You stay with everybody, so you get to know them a whole lot better," says 8th grader BJ Murray. "You really get to know your teachers."

Not The LEGOs You Had As A Kid

The classroom itself is covered in previous and current student projects. A robotic pump system greets visitors as they enter the former wood shop classroom. Some of the student projects sit atop old table saws lining the back wall, with cardboard chairs sitting at their feet; CO2 cars sit drying, coated with fresh paint.

After completing projects in 6th- and 7th-grade, students get to look forward to constructing the most complicated project yet: LEGO robots that can make basic decisions based on objects placed in front of them.

But these aren't ordinary LEGOs. Heli's 8th-graders use LEGO NXT Mindstorm robots developed specifically for engineering.

Students work with light, ultrasonic and touch sensors to program the robots. The ultrasonic sensor works similar to the way a bat sees by sending out and receiving signals, allowing it to tell the distance between itself and an object. The touch sensor works when it is touched and reacts whatever way it is programmed to react.

"It's so connected to so many different disciplines," Heli says. "The math and the science that they're using in those, they don't even know it. They're calculating how far the robot has to go based on the amount of rotations, so they're using degrees, measurement and then they're using formulas to calculate how to program it to go a certain distance. They're using decibel levels when they are using different sensors. That's so high-tech that it's really exciting. Every project has its own cool connection."

The students work on computers to program the robots to serve as quality-control machines like those found on assembly lines.

"You program it," explains Parnell Anderson, another 8th-grader. "You say whether you want it to stop, go or turn around. You can make it spin around in circles. They do whatever you program them to do. Sometimes all you have to do is make a sound and it'll move."

These robots can analyze and pick out objects that don't belong. "Similar to a cereal boxing plant that looks for pieces of burnt cereal," the robots look for and pick out the object that doesn't belong.

The robots can even tell the difference between a red ball and a blue ball sitting on top of a Styrofoam cup. The robot analyzes the balls and knocks off the ball that isn't supposed to be there.


After middle school, students can choose to go to a regular high school or to the STEM high school in the neighborhood, Middleton High School. Some students, like Murray, choose to attend Tampa Bay Tech, where there are programs similar to Heli's class.

It is here that programs like the FLATE Center (Florida Advanced Technological Education) look for students interested in STEM to continue their education at the college level, maybe even going on to make a career out of it.

Created by Executive Director Marilyn Barger in 2004, and housed at Hillsborough Community College's Brandon campus, FLATE is a program funded by the National Science Foundation. In its short history, the center has already obtained more than $55 million in funding.

"We work with community colleges and high schools around the state to enhance their advanced technology programs, particularly their engineering technology areas," Barger explains. "Its focus is to prepare advanced technology technicians."

The program at HCC is focused around advanced manufacturing and automated production. Different schools in the state have a different focus for whichever industry is in their region. For most students, there is a two-year technical core program and then they spin off into specializations and focus on the industry that interests them as a career.

HCC's FLATE program was the recipient of the Innovative Program award last July at the High Impact Technology Exchange Conference (HI-TEC) in Orlando.

FLATE's recruitment and outreach program is the most visible in the community and consists of two key programs to get kids involved with STEM principles.

One of FLATE's recruitment and outreach programs is a summer robotics camp directed by Heli at HCC. Middle school students can enroll in the camp and spend five days learning about robotics and other STEM concepts. Campers learn STEM concepts such as math and physics, work hands-on with robotics and go on a tour of a manufacturing facility.

The other outreach program that FLATE uses takes middle and high school students on tours to industries.

"We set up the tours, connect the industry to the students, pay for the buses, give them a lesson about advanced technologies and try to find a good fit between the high school or middle school program and the industry they are going to so that it's related to what they are studying," Barger explains. "So far, we've taken about 3,000 students into manufacturing facilities.''

Some of Heli's students could be developing the newest technology in the future.
"Building based on scientific reason is what the class is all about," says Heli, who graduated from Tampa Technical Institute with a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering and received a master's of business administration from the University of Phoenix. "They (the students) can think of an idea, say, 'What can I do? How can I solve this problem?' work it out, sketch it out, design it somehow and build something."

Matthew Wiley is a freelance journalist living in the Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa. He spends his spare time skateboarding around Tampa while trying to figure out what to do with his life. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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