Middle-schoolers use robotics to problem-solve natural disasters

Academics: Kopachuck students compete in advanced robotics, share laughs

of the GatewayNovember 20, 2013 

Kelsey Queen is working on a project that will help firefighters neutralize the toxins in their suits, something that can lead to illness after they fight wildfires.

During the course of her research, she called sources all over the Northwest for information.

“Nope, she really is an eighth-grader,” her teacher Joy Giovinini said. “She found your number. Can I put her back on the phone?”

Queen is in Giovanini’s advanced robotics class at Kopachuck Middle School. Giovanini has been teaching robotics for years after she started with an unpaid after-school program in Lebanon, Ore. Her master’s degree is in gifted education and she previously taught at Voyager Elementary.

The class is one of others like it in the Peninsula School District related to STEM education — Science, Technology, Engineering and Math — at all of the middle schools. STEM is a priority for the U.S. Department of Education under the administration of President Obama.

For all the work in robotics, forensics and engineering in schools, Giovanini defined the STEM classes pretty simplistically.

“It’s just a safe place to geek out,” Giovanini said.

“Geek,” these days, is relative. It’s not derogatory, it’s a way students get excited and passionate.

Giovanini said she’s had all types of students walk through her door. It’s the relationship built and the concepts learned that makes “geeking out” so rewarding and fun, she said.

The class is gearing up for a regional competition this December in Seattle. Robotics classes, which run the same First LEGO League program, compete on boards for points. The challenge set by First LEGO League this year is called “Nature’s Fury.” The board simulates a tsunami, and then the students use programmed robots to perform various tasks, such as saving dogs and cats, cleaning up debris or landing airplanes.

All made out of Legos.

In one of the scored elements, students tip off blue “logs” to simulate the natural disaster.

“None of us realize why it’s positive to release a tsunami, but it’s worth points, so we do it,” Giovanini said.

The board is laid out with different colored sections that are used for scoring. Students worked on a section last Wednesday where a robot saved a cat and a dog. The trick is programming the robot just right so it drives into the area, drops a ring and slides back with the animals in tow. The robot can’t knock over a power line piece or knock tree branches on the lines.

It takes trial and error. On one attempt, Zach Batanian came close. He got the animals, but the cat was underneath the robot as it was pulled to safety.

“We, like, crushed it, but we got it,” he said.

Then he readjusted the robot to get the play just right.

The students are practicing for the regional competition as well as working on a larger project — Queen’s firefighter safety idea. She wants to neutralize the bromine and chlorine that gets on the firesuits by washing them with pool cleaner. The students worked together to design a decontamination machine using a computer modeling program.

Giovanini said it was amusing to see Queen on the computer, looking up websites called “Bromine and You.” Queen has all the research organized in a folder. She’s taken notes from different sources, many in California. She wants to target Washington fires, but most of the information she can cull is coming from California.

Will Craig is helping on the execution side of Queen’s research. He’s working with Gig Harbor High School and Giovanini to use a 3D printer to create the elements of the project.

“My goal is to try and find a way to make this; bring it to life,” Craig said.

He did a Google Sketch-Up of the model for 3D printing. The model will be presented at the regional competition.

The class likely will end before the project is complete — the trimester is over in late November. Queen and her peers will keep working, though. She said the class will take some weekends and after-school hours to continue the work.

Right now, the class is collaborating on a name for their team. “The Phoenix” is what TJ Adams has presented, boldly stating it with a flourish of his hand. Other names include Harbor Halogens, Harbor Harddrives, Fire Ballers and Lego Leaders. Emily Kanick keeps the name ideas on a white board in the corner.

The state tournament is “a nice, big competition where we get together with another bunch of nerds,” Adams said.

Giovanini’s passion for robotics and STEM education rubs off on her students.

“I get fed by the kids’ excitement,” she said.

Take Jacob Welty, for example. He’s excited about the class because he wants to go into aeronautics and maybe become a pilot. Dressed up in an Abercrombie shirt, freshly pressed, he talked about his future.

“What I really like about robotics is it’s geared toward my type of field,” he said.

Giovanini encourages Welty’s path. She’s always pulling information for him regarding aeronautics. She also knows Jan Williams likes to read science books adults usually shy away from.

“He reads ‘The Disappearing Spoon,’ which is really dry science,” Giovanini said. “It’s neat to know what (the students) like and who they are so I can get the right materials in their hands.”

The class incorporates competition, too. Max Kein and Williams, his teammate, have racked up 289 points on the board. Kein crossed his arms, leaned back in his chair and said: “I have a quote: ‘If you ain’t first, you’re last.’

“I just like to win,” he said.

“That’s the most shallow thing I’ve ever heard,” Adams replied.

The whole class has a lively back-and-forth and keeps each other on their toes. They’re quick-witted and eager to learn. Giovanini is right in the center, joking, laughing and stepping back to let them lead each other.

It’s a small group of nine students, but the laughter and chatter makes the class size seem just the right size.

Whatever the team name ends up being, the group is already a team.

Reporter Karen Miller can be reached at 253-358-4155 or by email at karen.miller@gateline.com. Follow her on Twitter, @gateway_karen.

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