Tanya Barnes said they started lining up outside an hour before the doors opened.
After a week of hands-on training, building and programming robots, more than 50 local teachers Friday got a chance to compete against one another as part of Jacksonville State University’s Vex robotics training course. Through a grant, the university is working to train local teachers to take robotics into classrooms throughout the state.
But before the students can get their hands on the machines in the classroom this year, the teachers had their fun Friday morning.
“We had to kick them out yesterday at 7 p.m. and the class ended at 5,” said Barnes, the program administrator for the Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative at Jacksonville State University. “And they got here at about 7 a.m. this morning. We told them we’d open the doors at 8.”
The university is in the second year of a three-year grant program with the Robotics Education and Competition Foundation, which provides the robots and training opportunities for high school and middle school teachers in the area. Barnes said the goal is to stretch the grant money, more than $750,000, to have a trained robotics teacher at more than half of the schools in the area.
But more than training teachers, Barnes said, the program is about getting students interested in programming and building technology, and taking that interest into college and their careers.
“We don’t know what the jobs of the future are going to be, but they’ll be based in technology and science,” Barnes said. “We need to get more students interested in this field.”
On Friday, the teachers were competing in games similar to the ones used at official Vex robotic competitions. The middle school competition involved using a joystick to get the robots to move plastic blocks from one area to another, and stack them on top of each other. The high school competition involved building plastic poles with the robots, and then placing blocks over them. The competition involved driving the robots with a controller, as well as programming the robots’ moves ahead of time in 15-second intervals.
Kelly Ryan, the interim director of the Regional In-Service Center at the university, said the program works because the students don’t feel like they’re doing typical math and science work, but using all their knowledge to build and participate with a team.
“It’s not classwork to them,” Ryan said. “It’s a calculus-based problem, but it’s not something they’re copying out of a book.”
It also helps when the teachers are just as excited about the projects as the students, Barnes said. And while moving blocks around might not sound like high drama or competition, a look around the room as teachers fist-pumped and gave each other high-fives when their robots worked told a different story.
“When you’re excited about it, it flows into the classroom,” said Erin Strickland, a science teacher at Oxford Middle School. “And for the students, when you build a robot, they’re physically building something, and programming things in the computer, it’s going to be a major help for them in looking for job opportunities in the future.”
Ryan said the grant has already been successful, and the university attracted more than 30 teams last year to the first statewide Vex competition.
“So we’ve gone from zero to 36 in Alabama in just a short time,” Ryan said. “And we’re hoping to grow even more this year.”
One of those teams, led by Randy Rainey, a learning coordinator at the Cherokee County Career and Technological Center, ended up going to the world robotics competition in Anaheim, Calif., after winning the state competition at JSU.
“If you can get the technology into the students’ hands, and just facilitate learning, it’s going to give them a high aptitude to succeed,” Rainey said. “I think this is vital.”