THE ADVOCATE ASKS: Five fifth-graders discuss the challenges, fun and educational benefit of creating robots
Editor’s Note: For this week, we accepted an invitation from Saugus Public Schools Superintendent Dr. David DeRuosi, Jr., to visit Bill Palmerini’s classroom at Veterans Memorial Elementary School and learn about the elementary level robotics program he co-teaches with Computer Literacy Teacher Jaclyn Hunter.
Palmerini, a lifelong town resident and 1982 Saugus High School graduate, has been teaching in Saugus Public Schools for 33 years – all in the fifth grade. He is a 1986 graduate of Merrimack College with a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology and Education. He has a Master’s in Education from Boston University.
Hunter is in her second full year as a teacher. A native of Hunterdon County, N.J., she is a 2012 graduate of Hunterdon Central High School. She graduated from Northeastern University in 2016 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Spanish. She is studying for her Master’s at Lesley University.
We interviewed five of the 20 fifth-grade students who are enrolled in the school district’s elementary level robotics program, which is taught in 90-minute sessions twice a week. The program – which involves building robots and programming them for competition in the First Lego Robotics League – was made possible by an $80,000 grant the town received three years ago, with the help of State Rep. Donald Wong (R-Saugus). The 20 students enrolled in the robotics program have been split into two teams that will compete in regional competition next month at Nashoba Valley Technical High School in Westford. The theme of the competition is outer space. And the students have to program the robots to perform various missions in a certain amount of time. The students have been working on their robots and the field they play on since September.
The students interviewed by The Saugus Advocate were Calen Brennan, Christian Santa Maria and Scott Crabtree, who are students in Palmerini’s fifth-grade class at Veterans Memorial Elementary school, and Elmer Palencia and Joseph Ha, who are fifth-graders at Waybright Elementary School. Some highlights of the interview follow.
Q: So, what’s the hardest part of this program for you?
Calen Brennan: Figuring out code and programs.
Christian Santa Maria: It’s the program. That’s the tough part. It takes a lot of trial and error and you have to use a lot of material.
Scott Crabtree: Building the parts for the robot and doing the program. It just takes a long time.
Elmer Palencia: Sometimes we have problems talking with each other and working with each other. All of us have good ideas, but it’s just a matter of putting things together in a short time. We will only have about two minutes and 30 seconds to solve a problem [in the competition].
Joseph Ha: Building the parts for the robot. Once we’re building something, there is a possibility it may not work. That can be frustrating.
Q: What’s the fun part of the robotics program?
Calen Brennan: I think it’s being with all of your friends.
Christian Santa Maria: Thinking up some ideas on how you are going to do the missions correctly. Using your imagination on trying to build the robot and bringing everything together.
Scott Crabtree: It’s just a lot of fun working together and accomplishing the missions and getting the missions done. We spent a lot of time on the missions and building the field.
Elmer Palencia: Building stuff with your friends.
Joseph Ha: It’s working with everybody else to reach our goals.
Q: What do you hope to get out of this?
Calen Brennan: I really want to go to the finals and win. And maybe someday, I’ll be able to get into engineering.
Christian Santa Maria: I want to be a scientist. I want to discover space and I want to discover everything about the planets.
Scott Crabtree: I hope we do pretty good in the competition and get a lot of points so we win. This is a good experience. And we’re learning how to build things and work together.
Elmer Palencia: To go to the finals and compete. And I hope we can win.
Joseph Ha: Learning something that will help us win in the competition.
Q: So, how will this help you in your education?
Calen Brennan: If you want to become an architect or something, or somebody who builds vehicles, this can definitely help. Because you’re solving these problems, it could help you become an engineer, because that’s what most engineers do
Christian Santa Maria: If I ever want to become an astronaut, I’ll remember the days we’re studying robotics because it has a space theme to it. I can use it in real life and become successful.
Scott Crabtree: It’s just a real good experience. I get to learn about the robots and how to build programs and working together as a team.
Elmer Palencia: Building this robot is really going to help us. It will help our imaginations to become better in a lot of ways. Working together with people is a hard thing to do. This [experience] helped us learn about teamwork as well as programing the robot.
Joseph Ha: If you want to become an architect or a builder when you grow up, you can think back to the time you were working with Legos, building stuff.
Q: So, with all of your students working with all of these Lego pieces, what kind of impact will this have on the holiday spending?
Palmerini: It definitely will have a great influence over Christmas gifts for the holiday season. And these are very expensive: Lego is not a cheap product; there is probably $2,000 worth of Lego pieces alone, in this room.
Q: So, what’ the most difficult challenge for your students?
Palmerini: Keeping them motivated after they’re not successful, because there is a lot of trial and error involved in this activity. It’s all trial and error, so it can be frustrating, but we’re so fortunate to have these kids. They’re all engaged and they’re very patient. We’re watching success. You can see it on their faces when they accomplish something that they’ve been working on for two weeks.
Q: So, what do they get out of it?
Palmerini: The biggest thing they get out of it is doing the work themselves – without their teachers. They experiment in trying to program the robots and solve the problems related to the missions they work on. It’s all on them to accomplish their goals. And that’s what makes it fun. As a teacher, the biggest thing I get out of it is watching my students succeed as a team and love learning while they are doing it. In my classroom, I have almost zero absenteeism. All of the kids love this class, and all of these kids work together well.