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Chatham grants bring robots to class

ozobots

Nottingham Elementary School teacher Scott Schaffer (rear, second from left) and his fourth grade students are pictured with Oxford Area School District Superintendent David Woods (rear left), Chatham Financial grant committee members (rear from left) Sam Heriegel, Bert Boehmler and Ben Eimer; and Nottingham Elementary School Principal Lisa Yingst-Pyle, rear right.

With the increased role of robots in science, industry, law enforcement and national defense, it is becoming more essential for students to understand the concepts of robotics and to gain hands-on experience with robots, which may play a role in a student’s career path. In the Oxford Area School District, the opportunity for elementary age students to program and utilize robots in the classroom recently received a huge boost from Chatham Financial, a Kennett Square based firm that provides cloud-based software and advisory services for companies in the risk management field.

Through its Robotics @ Chatham program, the company awarded grants to support STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) initiatives at Nottingham and Hopewell elementary schools. The grants will support the capabilities of robotics and coding through the use of iPads, aligning with district and state science and technology standards in grades four through six.

The goal of Robotics @ Chatham is to ignite and sustain student interest in robotics and the STEM fields. Chatham believes that in addition to technical skills, robotics helps develop collaborative and problem-solving abilities, and also opens opportunities for college scholarships and internships that can have a life-long impact on a student.

Nottingham fourth grade teacher Scott Schaffer secured a $3,000 grant to purchase Ozobots, small robots that can be easily programmed by students on an iPad or by using special markers that place embedded codes on paper, creating a “design map” which the Ozobot reads in order to progress through a pre-determined course. With five skill levels from beginner to master coding, Ozobots teach basic STEM skills, critical thinking and debugging, and have gotten an enthusiastic response from Mr. Schaffer’s students. Hopewell STEM teacher Mark Neff used a Chatham grant to purchase the Sphero SPRK + robotics program, which features small round robots similar to Ozobots.

Bert Boehmler, a software development engineer at Chatham, serves on a committee that reviews Robotics @ Chatham grant requests. “We realize that tech purchases for schools are not cheap,” he said. “Our goal is to get kids to be hands-on with technology, to use it and not be afraid of it. That starts with making technology available to teachers and getting them excited about it.”

“Technology needs to be democratized,” added Mr. Boehmler. “People, especially young people, need to feel comfortable with it because it’s here to stay. At Chatham we believe the more technology becomes part of education the better.”

Ben Eimer, a quantitative analyst with Chatham whose son Max is in Mr. Schaffer’s class, also serves on the grant committee. “I was genuinely and pleasantly surprised by the grant application from Mr. Schaffer,” he said. “It was great to see a teacher in my home school district making use of this opportunity, and I was excited to see what the kids could do with the technology.”

ozobots

Nottingham fourth grader Max Eimer places an Ozobot on a design map featuring a color-coded path he created for the robot to follow.

“In our science units I am I always looking for a more hands-on approach to lessons, and then I’ll try to see how I can incorporate that approach throughout the curriculum,” said Mr. Schaffer. “Before applying for the Chatham grant I researched the kind of robots that would be effective in meeting the particular needs of a fourth grade class, and the Ozobots are very good in incorporating math into the robotics project.

“The Ozobots fit in perfectly with our math unit on angles. We’ve had a lot of fun drawing angles and other shapes and it’s amazing to see how the robot can do exactly what you want it to do.”

ozobots

Mr. Schaffer and his fourth graders look at a wall of design maps they created since they began using the Ozobots in class.

Much of the enjoyment factor of Ozobots comes from the ability to use different marker colors to command the robot to move in a particular way. “There is a sensor on the bottom of the Ozobot that follows the marker code, so the black maker determines the basic pathway the robot follows,” Mr. Schaffer explained. “And then there’s a red, blue and green marker that the students can use to code tasks for the robot to do, like speeding up, slowing down, spinning and reversing course. So as it progresses over the design map, the Ozobot is going to read each color code and do what’s it was programmed to do.”

Mr. Schaffer said his students would eventually use an Ozobot app on their iPads to write block code and create more complex design maps. “By using the iPads, we are integrating technology the district already has with a supplemental piece like the Ozobots to take things to the next level,” he said. “The possibilities are endless.”