Most school clubs have a long tradition of just being part of a school’s overall makeup. Drama club, pep club, Key club, foreign language clubs…all of these have been around for ages and interested students join as each new school year gets underway.
But the newest club to form at Neuse Charter School did not have a storied history among generations past. In fact, the newest club was not driven by the enthusiasm of adults, but rather by the interest of students.
The Neuse Charter School Robotics Team formed just a few short months ago thanks to two middle school students and the excitement of nearly three dozen others.
“I started the team for the students, especially James and Joseph Evans,” said Angela Jenkins, Neuse Charter School elementary technology teacher and advisor to the school’s robotics team. Jenkins said she taught the brothers in 4th and 5th grade and each year the boys asked for more information on coding and robotics. “But I didn’t know how to help them or where to go,” she said.
Fate would step in at the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year when Jenkins was able to test drive a local high school’s First Robotics Team robot. “I immediately thought of the boys,” she said.
Jenkins, along with NCS 6th grade math teacher, Jeff Matisoff and NCS middle/ high school technology teacher, Mike Ward, quickly put together a funding proposal to John Deere. The well-known tractor company sponsors FIRSTcompetition teams by providing fees and supplies, something the school would not have been able to do on their own. NCS parent and John Deere employee Chris Garrett agreed to serve as a corporate sponsor for the team.
Obtaining sponsorship may have been the easiest part of the season. At the first meeting more than 60 students, nearly 10 percent of the student body, expressed an interest in the team…way more than Jenkins expected since only 10 could present at competition.
With the team already under a major time crunch to complete their challenge for competition in mid-November, members met two to three times a week. As the season went on the team finalized its numbers with about 20 students participating and most willing to forego the competition team in order to become more prepared for next season.
The team consisted of students ranging in grades from 4th-8th with all levels of skill and interest.
“The older students helped the younger students by teaching them how to program and build,” said 6th grader James Evans who programmed for the team.
Joseph Evans said the young students came in with lots of creativity providing many ideas for the robot, while the older students knew how to do things to make the younger students’ ideas possible.
With only six weeks to prepare for competition the team had a huge task in front of them.
Jenkins explained that the theme for the First Lego League competition year was dubbed Animal Allies. “Teams had to study relationships between animals and people,” she said. “Our students chose to study and create a solution for a nearly extinct animal called the Mexican Axolotl.”
With so much work to be done members could fill various roles on the team…everything from research to coding to presentation at competition. Adult advisors could only direct and keep the team on task; students were solely responsible for problem-solving.
“Students took over the meetings by assigning tasks with teams, deciding robot challenges and finding solutions for problems. The coaches would ask questions to redirect whenever students got stuck,” said Jenkins.
All the students learned valuable lessons in teamwork and leadership as part of the team.
5th grader Holly Garrett was excited and nervous serving as a presenter for the team during its competition in Charlotte, N.C. on Nov. 20, 2016.
Garrett said she helped provide emotional support to her teammates while at the same time applying many of the school’s and league’s core values such as communication, leadership and friendly competition or “cooperitition”.
But the experience wasn’t just about the moment, many students on the team have their sights set on the future. Bennett Nascimento, a 7th grader, expressed the impact that his participation could have in the coming years with college applications and potential careers.
Although the team did not move forward from the regional competition they did gain valuable knowledge on how to proceed.
“After the crazy season and attending the competition I have come to see that robotics can be a huge program and asset to Neuse,” said Jenkins. “We want to provide a yearlong program focusing on FLL competition in the Fall and coding/robot building in the Spring. Long term the Spring will be the time that students strengthen their coding and robot building skills as they prepare for the next FLL season.”
“This team showed me how to have great teamwork, be a leader and let others lead to become a better team,” said Joseph Evans. “Overall it was very fun.”