Robotics boosts Oxford students’ interest in science and math
by Eddie Burkhalter
eburkhalter@annistonstar.com
Mar 01, 2013 | 5916 views |  0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Oxford High School students Noah Burns, 18, and Harshil Patel, 17, stand with the school's robotics team entry into last year's robotics competition sponsored by NASA. Their latest robot is sealed away as required by competition rules, awaiting the 2013 competition to take place March 14-15. (<i>Anniston Star photo by Eddie Burkhalter</i>)
Oxford High School students Noah Burns, 18, and Harshil Patel, 17, stand with the school's robotics team entry into last year's robotics competition sponsored by NASA. Their latest robot is sealed away as required by competition rules, awaiting the 2013 competition to take place March 14-15. (Anniston Star photo by Eddie Burkhalter)
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OXFORD — Oxford’s schools are taking a mechanical approach to promoting courses that have suffered from lagging student enrollment.

The district is using robotics to boost interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

That’s good news, said Elizabeth French, director of institutional effectiveness and planning at the Alabama Commission on Higher Education.

French believes robotics programs like the one at Oxford schools only stand to increase the number of students enrolling in STEM courses, as the quartet of subjects is known.

“Any robotics program is going to have a high level of science and math combined,” French said, and that means more students will be required to use the higher thinking skills required in STEM courses.

In 2000-01, 13 percent of Alabama college graduates earned degrees in STEM fields, according to the U.S. Department of Education. In 2008-09 just 11 percent of college graduates earned such degrees.

Alabama’s percentage of STEM graduates ranks slightly higher than the national average. In 2000-01 just 12.4 percent of U.S. graduates earned STEM degrees. That number fell to 10.7 percent in 2008-09, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

The commission doesn’t fund robotics programs, French said, but it does fund programs across the state that aim to “increase the ability of the students to master the science and mathematics and those higher-thinking skills.”

The programs — part of the Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative, or AMSTI — provide professional development for K-12 teachers to boost their knowledge in those STEM courses.

French said the commission does not track individual student progress, but a 2012 study by the U.S. Department of Education found that after just one year, students in AMSTI schools showed gains on math tests equal to 28 days of schooling.

“In response to this need in education,” said Roy Bennett, student service coordinator at Oxford schools, “we began a STEM program at the high school several years ago.”

The engineering classes led to an interest in robotics competitions among the students.

Two Oxford High students stood in the school’s robotics lab Thursday and showed off the product of hours of work.

Harshil Patel, 17, and 18-year-old Noah Burns are two of the 18 students from Oxford High who spent six weeks after school and on Saturdays building a robot that can toss a Frisbee with accuracy.

The largest obstacle they had, Burns said, was getting the robot to throw a disc hard enough and high enough, but they’ve got it all sorted out now, he said.

Patel and Burns will travel with their classmates to Duluth, Ga., March 14-15 to compete in NASA’s For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology robotics competition. In 2010 Oxford High’s robotics team advanced to the finals, and in 2011 the team won the Motorola “Quality Award.”

All the work has at least one of the two students on a path to enrolling in a STEM field. Patel plans to study engineering or information technology upon graduation from Oxford. Burns hasn’t settled on a major yet, but said he loves working with the technology.

BAE Systems in Oxford supplied a $15,000 grant that helped pay for the robotics program and the engineering classes. The programs have also received donations from Honda, Tapecraft, AOD Federal Credit Union, Interstate Sheet Metal Company and Udo Geesken at Honeywell.

In addition to high school students’ robotics studies, Oxford Middle School students are learning about programming and design working with Lego robotics.

C.E. Hanna School math teacher Jennifer Poore is the sponsor of the after-school Lego robotics class.

This year, Poore instructs 15 sixth-graders and a fifth-grader for two hours in the evenings and as many as six hours on Saturdays. The students program robots to detect lines, colors, move blocks and perform programmed actions.

“They learn the basic foundations of programming,” Poore said. “But they also learn how to build and rebuild robots based on what the robots need to do.”

Enrichment classes offered at Oxford Middle School allow interested students to work with those same Lego robots during school hours as well.

“These are kids that truly enjoy math and science, and we forget that sometimes. STEM is meant to encourage that,” Bennett said.

Staff Writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3563. On Twitter @Burkhalter_Star.
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