The St. John Robotics program has expanded to include middle school students.

On Tuesday, Nov. 7, USD 350 Robotics students and teachers held an open house to show off their robots and coding skills, share their plans for the year and long-term goals and allow parents and other students to interact with the robots. This is the first year that fifth and sixth grade students are participating in VEX Robotics under the instruction of Danny Smith. This is the second year that Robotics is offered at the high school level under the instruction of Andrea Sayler-Siefkes.

The fifth and sixth grade students are participating in VEX IQ Robotics. By its nature, the study of robotics inherently incorporates all four pillars of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). VEX IQ is a snap-together robotics system designed from the ground up to provide this opportunity to future engineers of all skill levels. By packaging advanced concepts into an accessible package, the system also naturally encourages teamwork, problem solving and leadership for students. Smith took several days of VEX IQ training this summer.

“I was impressed this summer by the amount of problem solving involved in Robotics. (The instructors) told us, 'Make the kids figure things out on their own.' That is hard to do, but once we started building it took the kids between four and eight days of class to put their robots together. We all built the same one and then they were allowed to change it,” Smith said.

Smith is using one set of robots this year. First semester the sixth graders have been building, coding, competing in classroom challenges and redesigning their robots. At the end of the semester these 27 sixth graders will deconstruct their robots completely so the fifth graders can have the same experience second semester.

In preparation for the open house Smith’s sixth graders came up with the following lists to share with attendees.

What have we learned from doing Robotics?

1. Teamwork.

2. Problem Solving - Following technical directions.

3. How components of the robot work.

4. How programming works.

5. Using Math skills to help with programming.

6. How to use different units of measure in programming.

7. Engineering.

8. How to make the best claw for the competition.

9. How to program the robot to run more precisely.

10. Learned more about how our partner works and thinks.

11. How to specialize and work cooperatively in the best way as a group.

12. How the function of the robot can affect our programming.

13. Responsibility.

14. Plan what you are doing/Focusing on what you are doing.

15. Learning how to use technology in a scientific way.

What have been the biggest challenges?

1. How to make your robot go straight.

2. Problem solving while building the robot.

3. Deciding who (which group member) is right.

4. Programming — How to turn and it is time consuming.

5. Making decisions as a group that we can all agree upon — Teamwork.

6. Frustration when things don’t work.

7. What to do when your partner isn’t cooperating.

8. Problems with technology.

Parents and other attendees were invited to watch the sixth graders and their robots demonstrate the various classroom challenges they had completed this far.

The nine high school students are participating in the VEX EDR Competition. The VEX EDR system harnesses the excitement of building robots to immerse learners in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) concepts. The VEX EDR platform was designed from the ground up to encourage creativity in problem solving. The system itself should never be the biggest constraint in the design process. With VEX, there is almost always more than one way to accomplish the same goal. Teams of students design, build, and code robots each year to play a brand-new game each year. This year’s competition is “In the Zone.” Applying basic STEM concepts to a competitive atmosphere increases student engagement and makes lessons feel more “real.”

Since the open house the high school students attended a competition in Hesston. Attending a competition early in the year allows the students to re-engineer their robots, re-code (computer coding) their robots, get ideas from other schools, as well as increasing motivation to build a high-quality competitive robot. The next competition is in late January and the high school students plan to attend at least three other competitions in the spring semester.

The robotics program has been very popular. Students enjoy working on the robots so much, they are reluctant to stop working at the end of the class.

"I've been in public education for 20 years and this is the first time I've had to kick kids out of the classroom. They want to stay and work on robotics," Sayler-Siefkes said.

The robotics program at USD 350 has been funding through grants, USD 350 Education Foundation, and the donations of generous local businesses and private citizens. The program is an expensive one to run and maintain. The robots the middle schoolers use cost about $500 each. The robots the high school students use cost $1000 each and to be competitive another $300 per robot can be added. The high school teams must also pay for registrations for each competition they attend. Each team (there are four high school teams this year) can each anticipate about $300 in competition fees per year.

The high school program has a goal to purchase the rest of the materials needed to be able to host a robotics completion in St. John. The projected cost to complete this goal is $3,000. Being able to host competitions in St. John would bring many out of county schools to St. John and bring some money back into the program though registration fees and concessions income.

To donate to the USD 350 Robotics program contact Superintendent Josh Meyer (meyerj@usd350.com). For more information contact Danny Smith (smithda@usd350.com) or Andrea Sayler-Siefkes (siefkes@usd350.com). Smith and Sayler-Siefkes plan to host another open house in the spring to showcase the fifth graders’ robots and the progress the high school students have made over the year.