Preparing for the future

St. Thomas students excel with STEM robotics

Joleah Stuhr, 12, sixth grader at St. Thomas Aquinas, explains how she and her classmates are able to maneuver their robots around the classroom and other obstacles Thursday afternoon at St. Thomas Aquinas School.

“They’re preparing for the future, essentially,” said St. Thomas Aquinas 6th grade teacher Terry Meyers.

Students in Meyers’ class have been honing their STEM skills by building and programming robots. Students started this comprehensive project in early October by working with the Tinker app on their iPads. This helped familiarize students with the programming they would be using with the robots. All 10 students began programming the robots towards the end of October.

“I feel the kids I have here can handle the challenge which I have definitely seen because they are so far ahead in the curriculum,” said Meyers. “I can barely keep ahead of what they need, as far as challenge goes, with regular subjects.”

STEM is a curriculum based on the idea of educating students in four specific disciplines – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – in a interdisciplinary and applied approach. With continuing advances in technology, STEM is paving the groundwork for students’ futures and careers.

“They have to be very precise in who they’re working with as well as the task at hand,” Meyers said.

St. Thomas Aquinas sixth grade student Camden Schultz, 11, explains a portion of the programming process Thursday afternoon at St. Thomas Aquinas School. The sixth grade class is in the midst of a STEM robotics project.

With STEM projects, students learn problem solving, critical thinking and communication skills.

“We started with just having them build the robots,” Meyers said. “They’ve been programming now for about a week.”

The robots required some changes and modifications as students put them into action.

“It was a lot of trial and error to make it finally work,” said student Aiden Rahe, 11. “The most fun part was finishing the robot.”

“We had to rebuild ours to get our battery pack out easier, because the first time we made it, it got caught in the wheels,” said Adeline Tesdahl, age 12. “So we had to lift up our brain (the motor). We all made different creations. Some similar. Some completely different.”

Part of the programming process students went through involved the use of sensors. Students had to create a series of connections to make the robot’s sensor know when to start and stop.

“We’ve had to change many things, especially when the robot runs into things,” said Kendyl Daniels, 11.

“This project is supposed to get them familiar with the technology they’re going to be expected to have in their future careers,” said Meyers.

Meyers, who is in charge of the Lego League at St. Thomas, was excited to bring STEM technology to all of his students.

“When we’re were doing the league it was late after school, so most students didn’t have the chance to spend all day at school and then the evening working on that,” said Meyers. “But when the opportunity came up to tie it in here, I jumped at it. This is the type of thing our future is going to be more of.”

According to Meyers, in Iowa, there are 3.4 STEM jobs available for every one applicant. There is a great need for employees and a lot of those STEM jobs will gear towards robotics within the next 20 or 30 years, he said.

“I want them to work more with the sensors because I want them to have the ability to create a problem solving robot themselves or we can create a robot that will find it’s own way through a maze without us giving it directions,” said Meyers.

This portion of the project will continue through December. When class resumes in January, students will go back to the textbook until April. In April, students will delve back into robotics at a more advanced level.

“I don’t like teaching so much out of the book, even though there’s a lot of things they can learn by the book,” said Meyers. “They learn best by doing hands on stuff and being able to give them more hands on experiences will tie in the memories they need for when they build on these skills in later grades.”

Because his students are already working at such an advanced level, Meyers hopes to find more tasks to hand them.

Meyers noted students were eager to start on the STEM project and it took very little time for them to pick up these skills.

“It was really fun, there are a lot of different options we could work through,” said Joleah Stuhr, 12.

“I really liked building and remodeling the robot,” said Sayeh Daher, 11.

As students finish up this portion of the robotics project, Meyers is excited for next spring, when students will be able to build on the skills they have learned this semester.

“I was expecting a lot of these concepts to be very foreign because this is the first year we’ve had robotics here. They haven’t learned robotics here in any previous class, but they have just taken this and run with it.”