Teachers, parents to get training in robots to meet surge in student interest

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Twenty teachers, librarians and parents will learn to build robots and write code to make them move during a three-day course led by Rhode Island Students of the Future, a local not-for-profit organization that promotes science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills by engaging elementary and middle school students in youth robotics.  

The course, which is sold out, is Aug. 4-6 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. It is led by Rhode Island Students of the Future and hosted by Gordon School, 45 Maxfield Avenue, East Providence.

“Robotics is exploration-based, best learned by engaging, aka, playing with the technology,” said Rebekah Gendron, president of the all-volunteer Rhode Island Students of the Future. “The goal of the course is to let the teachers and parents experience how fun robotics is. Once they get over the fear, their confidence soars and they realize they are capable of using these educational tools in their classroom, after school program or robotics club.”

Rhode Island Students of the Future engages more than 700 students a year in their robotics programs, including the FIRST LEGO League program created by inventor Dean Kamen. The capacity for growth, however, is limited by the number of adults willing to run clubs and coach teams. This course is one of their plans to address that bottleneck.  

“There is no shortage of student interest, but without caring adults, it would be impossible to provide this experience for kids,” said Kim Wierman, director of FIRST LEGO League, a collaboration between LEGO Education and FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a New Hampshire-based nonprofit that fosters students’ interest in engineering and technology world-wide.

“Business and government leaders have been sounding the alarm about the skills gap for years,” said Gendron. “While most of the focus has been on high schools, engaging elementary and middle school kids is crucial to ensuring our students are prepared for 21st century careers.” 

“FIRST LEGO League is a great way for kids to practice life: to work in teams, to solve complex problems and learn new skills like design thinking, iteration and coding,” said Mary Johnson, a Warwick resident and member of the Rhode Island Students of the Future Board of Directors. Johnson has been involved with the organization since 2004, when she stepped up to coach her son’s FIRST LEGO League team.

Johnson and Gendron are leading the three-day course, as well as a single day course pairing MIT’s SCRATCH, a popular platform for teaching kids to code, with the model building and simple machines exploration in the Junior FIRST LEGO League program for 6-9 year olds. Both courses are supported by grants from National Grid, Textron Charitable Trust and NE FIRST. Rhode Island Students of the Future’s course attracted teachers from public, private, parochial and home schools across the state, including St. Rose of Lima School in Warwick, RI School of the Deaf in Providence, the Bradley School in Portsmouth.

“Gordon School is one of a half dozen academic partners that provides venue space for our programs,” said Gendron. “We are a small, all-volunteer organization, and we wouldn’t survive without the support of the academic partners that host our programs and the adult volunteers who coach, lead clubs and manage robotics tournaments throughout the year.”

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