Preparing for Robotics

Preparing for Robotics
Students at DC's Whittier Educational Campus with ReSET Volunteer Peter Mehrevari

Thursday, January 26, 2012

ReSET Volunteer David McInnis on Floating and Sinking with 3rd Graders -

This week I was on my own; two classes, about 1 hour each.  That’s about 35 3rd grade Tasmanian devils swirling around with unlimited energy in a small classroom vessel.   The lesson is what I assisted with last week in the 4th grade classes, sinking and floating, aka density.
I dressed up nicely (stopping short of a tie which should only be used for weddings and funerals) , used real anti-antiperspirant, and had a cup of chamomile instead of coffee.  I gave Ms. Haynes a quick warning that this was my first time teaching elementary students and that I was a bit nervous.  She patted my shoulder and with a huge smile declared, “Don’t you worry.  I’ve got your back.”  I felt grateful and relieved.
After being introduced and unpacking the supplies, I started the “Floating and Sinking lesson” lesson, a ReSET standard.  This lesson involved using several containers of water and definitely required a stack of cleanup sponges.
The point of the lesson was to act as a demonstration of the scientific method and as an introduction to what density is.  In last weeks 4th grade lesson we actually weighed a baseball and a golfball.  The 3rd graders haven’t quite learned to read scales so I used a simple balance made of a clothes hanger with sandwich baggies attached at opposing ends.   As a class, we guessed and then measured how many golfballs equals one baseball (3).  I then gave them 150g as the weight of the baseball and asked them to find the weight of one golfball.  As it happens this lined up perfectly with their current math lessons and Ms. Haynes jumped in, taking over and giving me a much needed break.  I was sweating up a storm, my thoughts were jumbled, and I had no idea where we were going next.   Luckily I had written down a simple check list of the activities and located where we were.
Next we formed a hypothesis about what floats and what sinks in water.  They had some wild ideas but generally agreed that heavy things will sink and light things will float.  No one in either class voiced dissent, but I felt a little guilty corralling their ideas toward this conclusion.    We then placed both balls in a large container of water and made an observation…     the heavy item floated and the lighter sunk.
There were 4 tables, with 4 to 5 students at each.  They shared the equipment.   After a few steps chaos was starting to erupt over who was doing what.  It was critical to set up an order of turns; I simply numbered  around each table.
Here I tried to explain density and stumbled, wallowed, and was left facing a room full of puzzled faces.   At this point the teacher rescued me and held up two clear plastic containers holding markers.  One was nearly full, the other only had a couple of markers in it.  She explained that density was like having more stuff packed into a space.   So which of the containers had a ‘high’ density?
Next we tried floating a lacrosse ball in a cup of water and observed that it sinks.   Then, after removing the ball, we added about 1/4 cup of salt to the water.
Several of the kids in both classes had a taste of the material before being told what it was.  Sigh.  So, yes, third grade still requires purely non-toxic materials.
After adding the salt, we placed the lacrosse ball back in the water, where it floated!  Sounds simple, right?  The students went crazy over this.  After things calmed down a bit, we talked about how we had changed the density of the water.
For the final experiment we took some of the salt water and dyed it red…  well, I dyed them red.  When then took a clear cup of water and used an eyedropper to gently place some salt water along the inside of the cup.   It sinks to the bottom and forms a red layer that the students can easily see.  This experiment turned out to be underwhelming, but they seemed to get the point nonetheless.
In the end I learned that you cannot lecture to third graders and that finding great simple examples to explain you idea is critical.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

ReSET Volunteer Pete Mehravari Helps Students Change Orbit

It is most insightful to see how children at that age think and process out solutions to a problem. Sometimes they come at a problem from a completely different angle than a person with a more learned mindset.

Pete Mehravari, who serves as a coordinator for teams of ReSET volunteers through the US Patent and Trade Office, is excited about his work at Whittier Educational Campus, where he teaches 3rd- and 4th-grade students engineering, physics, and material science. Mehravari, now in his second year with ReSET, has been using programmable robots to teach basic computer programming and problem solving skills.

Last year, Mehravari’s students were tasked with programming their robot to autonomously traverse a course by figuring out distances and angles between checkpoints and adapting those measurements into basic programming code. After completing the basic course, students made up their own advanced course and were successful in making their robot traverse the course on their first try.

Mehravari, who has a BS in Electrical Engineering from Georgia Tech and a JD from Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School, feels that his early experiences with science as a child helped lay the foundation for future success: “My father was an electrical engineer who brought science and engineering into the household at a very early age. This helped me gain confidence and excitement in these fields, which in turn opened up many opportunities, not only in higher education, but also in my employment goals.”

Saturday, January 7, 2012

From ReSET Volunteer David McInnis' blog

David has blogged a number of times on his ReSET experience.  Here's the first one:
So Tuesday I emailed someone at ReSET asking to talk with them about what they do and if they’d need someone like myself.  The director responded asking if I’d like to meet at a school on Wednesday at noon.  I was nervous and really wanted to push it off for a bit, but nothing was going to change that way so I accepted.
We met at the school.  He had a clothes basket full of equipment and some 5 gallon buckets.  We talked for a bit, things seem to go well. He explained that they are invited in to a class to teach one hour a week for 6 weeks.  The school’s teacher is always present and is responsible for class management.  The volunteer should organize the lessons with the teacher, but can still choose the topic.
So after we talked he asked if I wanted to assist for a class. I agreed, while feeling nervous.
I just played the part of the assistant, helping out trouble spots, handing out materials, etc.  All went well.
The topic was an introduction to density by examining whether objects float or sink in water.
The kids really liked it.  They have so much energy and were so curious and playful.
So we did a second session as well.  I felt more comfortable and really enjoyed it.
Afterwards we talked about options; should I go and assist teachers that lack science background with their science lessons, or teach a group on my own, or shadow a couple more volunteers.   Later in the day John Meagher emailed saying that he just lost a volunteer that was covering a 3rd grade class and maybe I should consider that.
That got me thinking about lessons and what topics to try…  with lots of worry about them being truly worthwhile. I think it’s important to introduce the kids to something that they can relate to in their everyday life, not just a neat exercise they saw at school that has no direct real world use.
It’s a lot to ask for.
And maybe, given my lack of experience, it’d be better if I mostly took plans that were already in place so I could concentrate on the actual interaction with the students.  I can build better lessons later.