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Introducing Chicago's Marvin Camras Children's Engineering Elementary School's K-8 Robotics Program

Angelica Tobias

Angelica Tobias is the engineering and science support teacher at Marvin Camras Children's Engineering School in the Chicago Public School district. It has Pre-K through 8th grade students. She currently teaches exploratory engineering to first and second grade students and middle school engineering to fifth through eighth grade students. Angelica is a Gateway to Technology instructor in the Project Lead the Way middle school engineering program and is certified to teach Design & Modeling, Automation & Robotics, Energy & the Environment, Flight & Space, and the Magic of Electrons. She has been at Camras since it opened in 2010 where she was first a 3rd/4th grade bilingual teacher. Before that she taught at Reilly for one year as an ESL resource teacher. Angelica has a math, computer science, and general science middle school endorsement.
Angelica graduated from Northern Illinois University with a Master's in Elementary Education in a cohort through the Illinois State Board of Education's Bilingual Transition to Teaching program. She went into education after a hiatus of being a stay at home mom and volunteering at her children's schools. Before that she was a test engineer with a telecommunications company and a defense military contractor company. She graduated with a Bachelor's in Electrical Engineering from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Q: Please tell us about your K-12 robotics program? How many students does it serve? How long has it been in place and what were the main reasons and goals behind its establishment?

Tobias: Our robotics program is an after school extracurricular program. We use the LEGO Robotics from First Lego League (FLL). Our robot is LEGO's NXT controller and students can add accessories to it like sensors, wheels, and motors for moving. Our students can customize it with the LEGO parts and program the controller to do a specific task or mission.
Our program is currently for 4th to 8th graders but next year I would like to have another robotics program called JR. FLL for the 1st to 3rd grade students. We limit the program to 12 members because it gets too unwieldy for one adult to coach due to the hands on nature of the program.
This is our third year of the program and every year we make progress from the year before. This year we entered the FLL Robotics tournament for the first time! Our kids had a blast! They are very excited to compete next year. Because we are a children's engineering school, it was extremely important to give our students fun opportunities to explore STEM activities and careers. I also have an after school engineering club where we will work on things like NASA activities, robotics, electronics, CAD design, and other fun engineering activities.

Q: How do you measure the effectiveness and the success of your robotics program?

Tobias: Right now, the success and effectiveness of our robotics program is not measured by true metrics, but I would like to add that component into our program. However, I do see first hand the excitement, engagement, and growth of my students in the robotics club. It is always exciting to see students who never programmed before to successfully program their first mission. Another sign of success is when new members come in and my kids can take that new member and mentor them on the basics of programming without me!

Q: Has your program contributed to the academic success and achievement of its participating students?

Tobias: I believe that our program will contribute positively to the academic success and achievement of our students my motivating them to study, work hard, and continue their education beyond high school. I continually emphasize how the fun that they are having while they are in our robotics program is an example of what they can do in STEM careers. The students also receive a LEGO mini-figure when they show me their report card grades and they have improved or received good grades.

Q: In your opinion, could more urban students (namely Latino and African-American) benefit from robotics programs like yours?

Tobias: Absolutely! It is wonderful to have this type of program for our urban students. Most of my students are low-income, at-risk students. Some of them are English Language Learners. It is a great program for them because it is a visual, hands-on program. It challenges them to think, problem solve, communicate and work together in a fun way. They don't even know they are learning and building life and career skills!

Q: How engaged are your robotics students? Please, give examples. Tell us also about the advantages and challenges of teaching robotics to K-12 students?

Tobias: My robotic students are extremely engaged. At our competition, my students were at first hesitant in their abilities and their performance. However, after the first round, they were able to successfully complete 3 missions. Their confidence level soared and they started brainstorming on how to redesign their robot and program between runs to improve their scores! It was great to see them working together and sharing ideas without my guidance. I just stepped back and watched. One girl didn't even eat her lunch because she was too busy redesigning the robot before the next run!
The advantage of teaching robotics to K-12 students is that they are already a step ahead of most students in learning about STEM careers and activities. It's one thing to be a passive spectator and play video games versus being an active participant and design their own robot to complete a mission. They are not afraid to rebuild and reprogram their robot. They are building their teamwork and active communication skills as well.
The challenge of teaching robotics to K-12 students is that there is not enough time. We only meet once a week for one hour. That is not enough time to accomplish everything we want to get done. Ideally, we really need to meet twice a week for one and one half hours. Another challenge is making sure that I am accessible to help all members. If the 12 members all have questions or get stuck on a design or program, having another coach for guidance there would be helpful.

Q: Tell us about yourself, what prompted you in pursuing a career in education? Do you have any tips or advices for students aiming to pursue a career in STEM or STEM related fields such as medicine, business and economy, just to mention a few?

Tobias: My first career was as an electrical engineer. I graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago with a B.S. in electrical engineering and worked as an automation test engineer with a defense contractor company and then again with a telecommunications company. Afterwards, I stayed home when my fourth child was born and then went back to school for my teaching degree. I graduated with a M.S. in Elementary Education from Northern Illinois University. I am currently the engineering teacher at Marvin Camras Children's Engineering School. I love my job! It is the perfect melding of both my engineering and teaching degree because I have a passion for teaching children about STEM, especially engineering!
My advice for students interested in STEM careers is to really pay attention in all your classes to get the fundamentals. Once your fundamentals are there, you have a solid base to grow. Also, curiosity and a desire to learn new things are important. I just love when my first and second graders ask, "Why or How does this work?"! Another very important trait to have is perseverance. Failure is not failure; it is just learning what did not work. Try again!

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2011 The Innovative Science & Technology Group (ISTGTM)