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Students and Robots: A Winning Team in Toppenish

PHOTO: Kids around the country are building robots to enter in competitions. Toppenish Middle School is sending four teams to the next competition, Apr. 17-20, in Anaheim, Calif. Photo courtesy University of Texas-Dallas.
PHOTO: Kids around the country are building robots to enter in competitions. Toppenish Middle School is sending four teams to the next competition, Apr. 17-20, in Anaheim, Calif. Photo courtesy University of Texas-Dallas.
March 12, 2013

TOPPENISH, Wash. - When four teams from Toppenish Middle School in south-central Washington compete in a championship robotics tournament next month, it will be at least partly the result of their after-school program. In more Washington schools and after-school programs, the focus is on science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.

For the big competition - the VEX Robotics World Championships in Anaheim, California - the students are building robots that can pick up beanbags and toss them into containers, while competing with other teams' robots on the same course.

According to Kai Christianson, site supervisor for the 21st Century After-school Program at the school, the designs involve some very technical skills.

"Well, the kids need to know things about gear ratios, because they'll run these electric motors and they'll gear the wheels to move or the arms to lift," he related. "They also need to know about some mechanical engineering, structure, structural engineering, stress engineering."

Washington is one of five states that has just received a planning grant to develop a statewide system of STEM programs for after-school and summer learning.

Melanie Willis, who directs the 21st Century Learning Programs in the Yakima Valley, said it's a way to make tough topics fun and practical.

"I do believe that it's the linkage connecting the math and the science to real-life experiences," she said. "Because you hear, more often than not, 'When am I ever going to use this?' or 'Why is this important?' And so, I think they're really starting to make those connections, and then the light bulbs go off."

Christianson said the parts cost about $1,000 per robot, and his school has four of them. Add the travel and fees to attend the tournaments, and keeping a program running can be a financial challenge. However, he added, it's paying off in terms of getting students interested in career fields they might not otherwise have considered.

"A couple of them have indicated a real interest in wanting to pursue a field of study, maybe in mechanical engineering; or one student is fairly proficient at the programming and so, maybe computer engineering or electrical engineering," he said. "And so, those conversations have popped up more and more often."

The after-school STEM programs at Toppenish and other area schools are sponsored by the Northwest Community Action Center, which is part of the Yakima Valley Farmworkers' Clinic. Test scores have shown there is an achievement gap in STEM subjects for students of color in Washington, and after-school activities can offer opportunities to catch up.

More information about the VEX Robotics event is at RobotEvents.com.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - WA