Middle-schoolers spent a Saturday morning at The National World War II Museum deciphering enemy code, hitting drop zones, unloading soldiers from a Higgins boat, avoiding obstacles on the beaches of Normandy and liberating Paris — all in 2½ minutes, using Legos.
The second annual Robotics Challenge brought real-life scenarios from WWII to life as students collaborated on logistical problems using 21st-century technology. The initiative, aimed at encouraging young people to explore opportunities in science and math, focused this year on the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. Teams competed using their autonomous robots and preparing a research project.
“Teamwork and collaboration are a big part of the program,” said Annie Tete, coordinator of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics program for the museum. “Both are an important part of the learning process.”
The event grew from 28 teams to 36 teams in its second year, Tete says, and is likely to continue growing exponentially with the popularity of the STEM robotics program in middle schools. With a maximum of 10 team members and two coaches per team, the participants filled a bustling U.S. Freedom Pavilion on May 10.
“World War II was a time of some of the greatest technological advancements,” said Kenneth Hoffman, director of education at the museum. “Radar, penicillin, jet engines, the atomic bomb … I started researching the robotics program, and I found that it teaches 21st-century skills, such as computer design and programming, with life skills, teamwork and creativity. We’ve paired that with World War II in a meaningful way that is relevant to students’ lives.”
Only a few nonscience museums in the country have this kind of program, Hoffman said, although any museum can opt to be a STEM museum.
The projects include no shooting or weapons, Hoffman explained. Each team gets two chances, with its best score entered into the competition. In addition to the active robotics competition, each team completes a business request for proposal as a company looking to design a prototype for a way to keep soldiers safe. This cross-curriculum exercise, which incorporates writing, art, creativity, engineering and design, reinforces the teamwork and cooperation of the STEM mission and also pushes students to achieve in the direction of creative, nontraditional 21st-century jobs.
“Infrared lets us see the heat signatures,” explained St. George’s Episcopal School student Morgan Blum, whose team submitted an RFP for an infrared camera that floats overhead. “If a gun heats up shooting or something got blown up over there, it would give them a heads-up. We call it ‘Eye in the Sky.’ ”
Computer teacher Brendan Murphy, from St. Matthew the Apostle School in New Orleans, said the STEM robotics program helps students gain confidence in school and become future leaders.
“They find something they are truly talented at and a place where they belong,” Murphy said. “It makes them realize that they have valuable things to offer.”
Murphy said he has witnessed the STEM program changing the lives of girls in his classes, especially those who don’t see themselves as athletes.
“The girls have the perfect mindset for this because they are patient and understanding,” Murphy said. “I go out and recruit them; I hunt them down. I don’t think there can be a successful robotics team without the girls.”
Unlike some of their peers who work on the project as part of regular classroom instruction, students from St. Clement of Rome School in Metairie have an after-school club. According to coach Eileen Hite, these students built their robot in one afternoon and took three months to program it, including working over Easter break.
St. Clement student Emily Vu said she especially enjoyed the programming aspect of the project, a skill that has opened doors of possibilities for her.
“We were given a code, and we have to substitute numbers with letters to break the code,” Vu said. “I like it because I’m naturally good at it. I’m not really into sports or cheerleading, so this is something different that I can do as an after-school activity. I like that it’s challenging.”
The museum aims to support STEM learning for students who participate in the international First Lego League by providing an additional opportunity for learning and practicing.
“Educators recognize if you don’t get young people excited about STEM by middle school, it’s very hard to excite them in high school and college,” Hoffman said.