Slater robotics program preps students for STEM careers

Slater robotics program preps students for STEM careers

Nicole Lemire, left, a science teacher at Slater Middle School and first-year coach of the school’s robotics program stands with some of the robotics students, in back, from left, 8th-grader Jhamil Maldonado; 6th-grader Isaac Ibidapo; 8th-grader Javon Jesus; 8th-grader Daniel Goncalves; 8th-grader Emmanuel Ibidapo. In front, from left, are 8th-grader Sara Cueva-Vertiz and 7th-grader Mario Garcia. (Breeze photo by Melanie Thibeault)

PAWTUCKET – With their latest competition behind them, Slater Middle School students in the robotics program are spending their time learning more about building and programming as 8th-graders prepare their younger peers to feel confident about taking over the team next year. “My favorite part (of) robotics is everything,” 7th-grader Mario Garcia, who both builds and programs robots, told The Breeze.

Slater currently has 12 to 15 members who consistently participate and six to eight who are actively involved in building and programming robots for competitions, according to Nicole Lemire, a 6th-grade science teacher and first-year coach of the team.

The program is funded through Pawtucket’s Child Opportunity Zone program, which covers the costs of enrollment fees and materials, she said. The group meets after school every day for a couple of hours.

On Jan. 25, the Pawtucket Robotics Program, which was created eight years ago after the district received a grant for a STEM activity focused on secondary schools, hosted a qualifier competition for the FIRST Tech Challenge, run through the New Hampshire-based nonprofit FIRST, which stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.

This was the first time the events were held in schools, according to Mary Parella, director of Pawtucket’s COZ. Teams compete in qualifiers for a spot in the championship tournaments.

Pawtucket was the only urban district in the qualifying round that they hosted, which exposed others to “the great things we do in Pawtucket schools,” she said.

The FIRST Tech Challenge allows students in grades 7-12 to “design, build, program, and operate robots to compete in a head-to-head challenge in an alliance format,” according to its website.

While Slater’s team ranked 20th out of 28 teams, students were not discouraged by the outcome. Eighth-grader Daniel Goncalves said he thinks because members were busy with other extracurricular activities this year, they didn’t do the best job of communicating with one another.

“That’s something we struggled (with),” he said. “We didn’t have that much time.” The robotics season starts in September with an announcement of what the FIRST Tech Challenge will be. Students then brainstorm and build robots, troubleshooting problems along the way. “We’re also learning in the process of building competition robots,” Goncalves said.

“Programming is one of the key things to make a robot move,” Garcia said, noting that he uses a program called Blocky to code.

Students on the team are builders, who construct the physical robots, or programmers, who code the robots, or observers who are there to learn. While 6th-graders can join, students have to be 13 years old to be active participants in the competitions. The students also work with an adviser from New England Tech and mentors from Shea High School.

“I never thought I would be able to build a robot on my own and make it work,” Goncalves said. “I’m excited for the future.”

Most 8th-graders said they plan to continue with robotics in high school, and most team members said they would like to pursue a career in engineering.

Before the end of the school year, the group is building several robots to hold a mini competition at the school as a way to see how well the younger students are doing, they said.

Lemire said she’s amazed that 11-, 12-, and 13-year-olds can take a bucket of metal pieces, build robots, and hold their own in competitions.

“I absolutely will stay on next year (as coach),” she said. “I have more to learn.”

Also through FIRST, Goff Middle School has two to three teams that participate in the FIRST Lego League, while two teams at Slater and two teams at Shea participate in the FIRST Tech Challenge.

The Pawtucket teams, like the school district as a whole, have a “very diverse population from kids of all different backgrounds,” Parella said. Eight years ago, she said, there were fewer urban sites that competed but over the years she’s seen “more diversity among the kids who are competing,” including more girls who are taking active roles in the competitions.

The district is working hard to keep the program going, she said.

Of the benefits, she said students learn many skills that are required in STEM-focused careers. “That’s where the … good-paying … jobs are,” she said. They also learn how to work as a team, communicate, and solve problems. “All of those skills are required in today’s careers,” she said.

Daniel Goncalves, an 8th-grader at Slater Middle School, works on a robot that his team designed for a past competition.