Building Toward Greater Success in Robotics

Since joining the high school, Doug Scott has been rebuilding the robotics program with rising success. Currently, two courses are offered.

For the students, robotics offers an alternative opportunity to discover skills they may not have known they possessed. Combining collaborative, project-based learning in a team environment that includes research, writing, building, programming, communication, and marketing, students face challenges that are creative and fun.

Image: Doug Scott speaking with students.

Doug Scott speaking with students.

“The kids get pretty competitive,” Scott said. “The competitive nature drives them and they want to do well.”

Lego robotics provides an entry point for anyone interested and features the familiarity of Legos for construction and a simpler block-style programming language. Yet, the more advanced team robotics course extends beyond the classroom.

Sophomore Neel Mehdi echoes that observation, “I just love competing and I think that is what drive our team as a whole, competing against other teams. It helps us bond.”

Team robotics uses far more robust hardware than the Lego counterpart, as well as a C-based text programming language. Students in the course compete interscholastically, with honors students required to compete outside of school.

Students have achieved notable success. In their first competitive year, Hopkinton fielded five teams. All qualified for the Southern New England Championships, the next regional level of competition.

“Teams that perform well in that even have the opportunity to move onto the World Championship where 34 countries participated last year,” Scott explained. “One team made it to world’s last year and finished 11th in their division of 200 teams.”

Image: Alopa Waje and Tanya Kahn discuss their robot design.

Alopa Waje and Tanya Kahn discuss their robot design.

Yet for freshman Tanya Kahn the appeal exceeds the competition, “It’s really captivating, building a robot from scratch. A lot of people think it is not creative but it is so creative.”

In fact, for instructor Doug Scott building the robot is only a small part of the experience and learning.

“For me as the teacher it is more about the soft skills that students learn. Those skills are transferable,” Scott said.

The students shared this notion, recognizing that thee are range of areas where they recognize their own growth.

Freshman Alopa Waje said, “There are so many aspects to robotics. There are so many different ways that you can contribute to a team, which really helps with the bonding and teamwork that we can display in this class.”

“It teaches us some very necessary life skills that we will need down the road, like managing a schedule,” Mehdi added.

Sophomore Phillip Blanchette recognized another thread that links a lot of different elements in class. “Communication is a big part of it. You need to know who is doing what. When they are doing it,” Blanchette said.

Image: Beatrice Galbusera solving design problems.

Beatrice Galbusera solving design problems.

Nevertheless, the outside competition provides a deadline that is neither ambiguous nor arbitrary. In addition to inspiring some fun, it drives a lot of teamwork and communication.

“The person building the robot needs to know who is building this other part and when the program is going to be done for that part, who is in charge of the notebook, and when we are going to be done and ready for competition,” Blanchette explained.

As teacher Doug Scott maintains, “If you are person that likes to work in teams and work collaboratively toward a common goal this is a really positive experience. A lot of kids might think it is not for them but it is available to everyone and everyone is capable of being successful in the program.”

Video Refreshes Elementary Art Classes

“Hello, Elmwood artists!” sings teacher Bonnie Gaus, greeting students in each of her new video demonstrations prepared for her second and third-grade art classes. This year Gaus has begun producing short videos for her students to communicate directions, demonstrations, as well as a whole lot of creative fun. Meeting 23 classes of second and third graders in a single week means a whole lot of students make their way through her art classroom. Working with every one of the more than 500 students at Elmwood Elementary poses a different kind of challenge. Veteran art teacher Gaus was inspired to try something new this year and making videos for her students has reignited her teaching. “I saw other teachers doing it on YouTube. And I thought this would be great when I introduce choices because this is a choice-based classroom,” Gaus said. “I teach skills, not specific projects. I show them how to use the different tools and then they choose their subject matter.” The videos Gaus has already produced have changed her classroom. Part demonstration of artistic techniques, part explicit direction about getting started and cleaning up, Gaus’ foray into video production has already had some significant benefits. “I am able to show everything visually and write it down, so they can watch and read it. Each kid gets the same exact information. And they just retain it better. With the video, I don’t know what it is, but they are completely enthralled,” Gaus explained. Third-grader Elena noticed some other advantages, as well. “You can turn up the volume and hear it better. Since the screen is so big, everyone can see it. If she is sitting right there and trying to show us, some people won’t be able to see or hear her.” Photo: Art Students WorkingAnother factor that has helped Gaus involves time management. Each art class only lasts forty minutes, once a week, which means time is particularly precious. The video production process has helped Gaus revisit all her demonstrations with an eye squarely focused on duration. “I can look at the video and it helps me to make things concise. Since art is so short, I want to keep the demos between 4 and 7 minutes,” Gaus said, maximizing the time that students have to be creative and engage in making art. “It forces me to make information as clear and concise as I can.” Third-grader Lila has enjoyed the new effort, “They are funny and they teach you new things. It is kind of easier to understand, instead of her talking directly. When you watch the videos you can tell better what she is saying, because before she might have to repeat if some kids are talking over her.” “I won’t forget to tell them something. They are all engaged and they are not raising their hands to give comments because they are watching,” Gaus added. “There is a lot of information for them to retain, especially when they are excited to get started.” Photo: Art Students Watching Another student Mia explained, “I feel like it is really helpful. She makes the videos fun and interesting to watch while explaining the directions to do. I like how she uses materials to help. She draws stuff to help us get ideas.” “Mrs. Gaus can be in like twelve places in five minutes. Then, she can have materials she can use that are not in the room,” classmate Zach said of the videos. “They are interesting, so more kids want to pay attention. So, it is easier to follow directions.” Not only are the students gaining from the new experience but the teacher has become the student again. “I just wanted to get excited about something new and I wasn’t really using technology. So I am teaching myself new things,” Gaus said. The art teacher dove straight into teaching herself how to make the videos from start to finish. Preferring to work alone, he spends considerable time planning, shooting, and editing her productions. “I write out what I want to do. The most challenging thing is when I watch myself and make it interesting, and the editing,” Gaus said, minimizing the time and effort she has put into learning how to edit video with iMovie. “Each one is getting better but it is fun for me.” Very soon, she also will be integrating a set of iPads into the various centers around the classroom, increasing her personal and professional learning and use of technology even more. Still, the true charm is Gaus the teacher. Her classroom persona is filled with character but the videos amplify her playful nature and comic qualities. She revels in the character she assumes in the videos, exaggerating with energy and doing a number of voices with all kinds of improv puppetry. As another third-grader, Sophia said, “She has funny voices with her puppies. And the puppies are really cute. She uses them to tell us things and get us happy and excited.” The students are not the only ones delighted. Gaus said, “It’s exciting to me and it has made teaching fresh for me again!”

Computer Science Students Head to Harvard University for CS50 Lecture

As September came to a close, 40 Hopkinton High School students trekked into Cambridge to hear a lecture by Harvard University’s David Malan. Already familiar with the professor from screening recorded lectures, the opportunity to see him live gave students a glimpse of both the teacher and the university setting. Dr. Malan created  CS50, an introductory computer science course, offered both on campus to enrolled Harvard students but also open to the world as a massive open online course for anyone interested via edX. It is currently the largest course offered at Harvard, Yale, and on the edX open online course platform. Two sections of Hopkinton’s Advanced Placement (AP) Computer Science Principles were joined by students from the Mobile App Development and Game Design courses, as well as the Girls Who Code club on the visit Harvard. The live lecture in the Sanders Theater, located in the High Victorian Gothic Memorial Hall, was quite a change of pace from a typical class at the high school. “Seeing it live really made the computer science class come to life because we had just seen [Dr. Malan] on video,” sophomore Allison Fu said. “Now I can see him in person and directly engaging with the audience and the students actively participating in the lecture. That really made me enjoy it even more.” More akin to a televised event, a team of Harvard students recorded the lecture for the open online version of the course. The lecture is already available online. “It as really an enlightening experience with a ton of information and the lecturer was actually really nice too,” senior Kent Berlin said. During the lecture, Dr. Malan explored basic data structures in command line arguments. Students watched in the classic theater mixed with current Harvard students enrolled in the course. “I thought it was really a great opportunity for HHS students to witness the curriculum they will experience but in a college level lecture hall. I hope it shows them just how much they are capable of learning,” said librarian and computer science teacher Kirsten Fournier. The field trip offered multiple courses a chance to visit Harvard’s campus and gain a glimpse into what it might be like to potentially major in computer science as an undergraduate. “In our Mobile App Development class, we use MIT App Inventor, where they learn the basic concept of coding but it’s not the line by line experience of a higher level computer programming language,” Mike McFarland said. “It exposed the students to a real-world example of what a computer science degree entails and a look at the level detail involved.” Alison Fu said, “We are all interested in maybe having a computer science as a major in college. To go on this trip and have a feel of it really feels like and that was one of the main reasons I went on this trip.” Photo: Harvard University's CS50 Professor David MalanSince CS50 is also one of the AP approved curriculum providers for the high school Computer Science Principles course and exam, Fournier often uses or adapts lessons for use in the high school course. The public CS50 version includes publicly available tools like an integrated development environment (IDE), a debugger, and grading tool. The course material also integrates easily with GitHub, a popular Internet open source storehouse and hosting service for all kinds of coders. “The IDE that [CS50 course] provides is where we will be doing all of our programming,” Fournier explained. “Everyone can access it and easily submit their work through GitHub, which allows me to review and comment line by line.” “[Students] can also see their classmates code and problem sets because not everyone is going to solve a problem the same way,” Fournier said. “It’s the total package,” Fournier commented about the value of CS50. For students, the day out provided an experience not possible in a Hopkinton classroom or through video recordings. Students generally enjoyed themselves. “I thought it was really cool. I love Cambridge and the Boston area. And I thought the lecture was really interesting because I wanted to learn about CS and how its applied in a classroom setting, senior Ben Nigrosh said.