Quicksand, ant piles and McDonald’s, oh my! Fourth grade students at Woodvale Elementary navigated these and other treacherous and comical obstacles during the semester’s final robotics club meeting Wednesday.

The 27 students gathered in teams of three around poster-board mazes riddled with obstacles and used iPads to code a path for their robots to reach the finish line unharmed. The mini-competition was based on Barnes and Noble’s “Story Design” program.

The students read “After the Fall: How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again” by Dan Santat and devised egg-protection systems to cradle “Humpty Dumpty” and used their robots to guide him through a maze and back to the wall safely.

Twin sisters Taylor Wallace and Morgan Mercado launched the Woodvale Robotics Club last year as an outlet for creativity, out-of-classroom learning and fun. Wallace, who teaches fourth grade gifted math and science, said the response has been phenomenal and the size of the club has nearly doubled, growing from around 30 students to 54.

It’s a great opportunity to expose the students to STEM fields and future career paths, the sisters said.

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“Some students are so limited to what they think they can do, so we want to open their minds to make them realize there’s so much more out there than they even realize,” Mercado said.

The teachers split the group into two cohorts of 27, with the first group participating this fall and the second slated to begin club meetings in the spring. The club is free and currently limited to fourth graders, but students aren’t limited by behavior or other standards. The teachers want to reach as many students as possible, Mercado, who teaches fourth grade gifted reading and social studies, said.

Over the past six weeks, the fall cohort learned how to execute block-based coding using Blockly software to command their robots to execute tasks. Block-based coding is an entry-level approach that introduces students to the basics of more advanced concepts, like text-based coding, Mercado said.

The students were walked through exercises but were also allowed to teach themselves and their peers, and discover the functions for themselves, she said. Wallace said the exploration process was a great way for the students to explore their abilities. 

“Not all students will show the same strengths in a regular classroom, so they need to be exposed to new opportunities so they can recognize their strengths and build on new talents,” she said.

The experience left a strong impression on Lucy Cross. The 10-year-old said the coding training would give her the background and confidence to try more difficult coding in the future. Lucy said it could also set her on the path to future career success if she decides to explore STEM, because demand for robotics experience is increasing.

Putting her skills to test in the final challenge and seeing her robot run was a proud moment, she said.

“I felt that moment of happiness when you’ve worked so hard and you finally accomplish something. I didn’t think I was capable of it,” Lucy said.

Aside from the career and technical skills, participating in robotics also helped the students learn to communicate better, collaborate and develop critical thinking skills, Jorey Krupa said.

Krupa is the market business development manager for Barnes and Noble in Lafayette, who provided the robotics kits to Woodvale. The kits included Wonder Workshop’s Dash and Dot robots and attachments, booklets and prepared challenges. The attachments, like towing hooks and bulldozer parts, helped the children explore concepts such as forces and interactions, he said.

The kits were purchased with LPSS funds to support STEM exploration in schools and Krupa has trained teachers across the district and worked with students at Woodvale, Green T. Lindon Elementary, Prairie Elementary and Cpl. Michael Middlebrook Elementary, he said.

Krupa said he’s honored to be part of the students’ maturation through the club and proud to see how well they learned to respond to adversity.

“They learn to look at everything as a problem that can be solved, challenges that can be met and they know those challenges won’t break them,” Krupa said.

Wednesday’s challenge was ripe with opportunities for perseverance. Students were high-fiving their teammates, prompting their robots to perform celebratory break dances and cheers after successful maze runs, and supporting their fellow club members with encouraging cheers and calls of “Good job!” when things didn’t go to plan.

“It doesn’t always work, but that’s OK,” one student said.

Wallace said the students’ “yes!” moments and joyful looks fill her heart as a teacher.

“I honestly look forward to Wednesday afternoons because I know they look forward to it,” Wallace said. “It makes me the happiest teacher I can be when they’re excited and they get a challenge and they feel successful.”

Mercado said her favorite part was getting to know the students and building new relationships. The friendships and teamwork were one of 9-year-old Malik Lambert’s favorite parts too, he said.

Malik said he loved getting to conquer challenges with his friends, new and old.

“I feel proud. I’m glad I’m in robotics club because I want to do new things to learn,” he said.

Email Katie Gagliano at kgagliano@theadvocate.com