Students build robots for class project
As sixth grade science students at Russellville Middle School walked into their classes for the first time this school year, teacher Lee Brownell had one question for them – “Do you want to go to Mars?”
After receiving resounding cries of “Yes!” from his students, Brownell began to tell them about a year-long robotics and engineering project the classes would be participating in that would tie into the sixth-grade science curriculum of Earth and space.
Brownell, who is the sponsor for the RCS Engineering and Robotics team, said this year’s sixth graders are creating a robot that will simulate going to “Mars” and collecting rock samples to send back to Earth
“I went to a workshop this summer hosted by AMSTI and Auburn University to learn about using robots in the classroom,” Brownell said.
“As part of the class, I got a robot kit to use with my students. I decided that since we study Earth and space science in sixth grade, we could send a rover to Mars to gather rocks to compare to Earth rocks, which also ties into current events because NASA is now working on a similar mission.”
Brownell said the students work on the “Mission To Mars” project after completing their regular classwork. In the first half of the mission, they learn to program and manipulate the robot, which is what they are doing now.
“Currently, they are making the robot pick up “Mars rocks”, which are actually racquet balls, and moving them around,” he said. “They are getting really good at driving the robot via remote control.”
In the second half of the mission, Brownell said the students have to make the robot work on its own. Since there would be a 4-20 minute delay in communications with Mars due to its distance from Earth, the robot has to be autonomous. The rover will move about the surface of “Mars”, retrieve a “rock sample”, and place it in a recovery vessel to send back to Earth.
Brownell said the students will have photographs of the landing site with measurements to help them create a program for the rover.
“The plan for this unit is to give the students some real world application of science and technology,” he said.
“As part of that, I want them to learn to be self-sufficient. Even though I have offered some rudimentary instruction, I don’t give them any instruction on how they are supposed to program the rover. They discover for themselves how to make the robot do what they want.
“Along the way, they make mistakes in the programming. I tell them it is okay to make mistakes as long as they learn from them.”
Brownell said students had been using the website code.org to learn more about the programming aspect of the robotics project, and there were several students who had really gotten involved with the programming, like Bailey Hargett and Braden Bales, who did the programming for one of the videos.
“Programming has definitely been my favorite part and it’s something that I’ve figured out I really like to do,” Bales said.
“The programming has been my favorite part so far because I’ve really enjoyed figuring out how to make the robot work,” Hargett added.
“And it’s been great to get to do this on our own. It’s not just the teacher getting to do all the fun stuff – we get to interact with the robot and it feels so much better knowing we’re doing all of this ourselves.”
Kendrick Duncan said working on this project has helped him see that he might have a future in science and engineering.
“I’ve really liked getting some hands-on experience and not just reading about all of this because I’ve enjoyed this project,” Duncan said.
“I might actually want to be an engineer or a programmer some day, and if I do, then I’ve already started learning a lot about it.”
Brownell said his classes are leaps and bounds ahead of where he thought they would be at this point in the project.
“They have been very successful so far in their venture,” he said.
“Every class has a program that allows them to drive the robot and pick up the ‘rocks’ so far. Now I’m looking forward to seeing them make the robot move on its own.”