Pomona robotics program motivates elementary students

Students work on their robot,
Students work on their robot, "Viper," at the 2008 Robot Rally.
Cal Poly Pomona

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National education leaders worry about the United States’ ability to produce enough homegrown university math graduates trained for technical careers. Today, a teacher training program at Cal Poly Pomona marks its fourth year of trying to reverse that equation.

Pomona elementary school teacher Rebecca Norwood says the problem with a lot of the textbook math taught these days is the word problems. "Lori is going to fence in a garden and they give the dimensions of the garden, how much, you know, fencing is she going to need. And then for area it’s always about carpet, you’re going to a room and then they give the dimensions."

It’s hard to excite fourth graders eager to learn about perimeter and area with trips to buy fencing and carpeting at Home Depot. But, Norwood says, tell the 10-year-olds they’re going to create a robot out of a Lego kit to compete in a sumo wrestling competition and their eyes light up.

"We go into the classrooms for two hours a week to introduce the robotics curriculum and then at the end of the year we have this culminating event where the classrooms are invited to come to Cal Poly for a competition," said Cal Poly Pomona math education professor Cesar Larriva. He's led a program for the last four years that has trained teachers in Pomona and Walnut public schools to give students learning experiences they can relate to.

At the competition students show off the robots they’ve worked on for most of the year using proportional reasoning skills and collaborative problem solving. Teacher Rebecca Norwood says most standardized testing rewards memorization, not teamwork. "I don’t think that we allow children to work together as much as needed, and that’s really life skills, being able to compromise and be flexible or stand up for your ideas and say, ‘No team, this is what I think is going to work.’”

Norwood taught fourth and fifth grade in Pomona schools for almost a decade. Now she trains other teachers in these methods. In an era of skim resources, Cal Poly’s Cesar Larriva says, training even a handful of elementary school teachers in math and science instruction should produce exponential benefits. "Our goal is to train teachers on this curriculum so that they can become independent over the course of a few years and then be in a position to train other teachers."

Whether their robots win or lose at the Cal Poly Pomona Robot Rally, Larriva says, the third, fourth, fifth and sixth graders will have already learned important lessons they won’t find in textbooks.