Undergrads in Jeff Forbes\' Class Use Robotics to Teach Math to Middle Schoolers

March 11, 2010

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<p class=\"NewsPhotoCaption\">Isaac Musick, Prof. Jeff Forbes, Tony Thomas (ugrad program coordinator), Brook Osborne (program manager), Ikaagarjot Hothi

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<p class=\"NewsPhotoCaption\">Isaac Musick

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<p class=\"NewsPhotoCaption\">Brook Osborne, Ikaagarjot Hoth

<p class=\"Bold Color\">Adopt a Classroom Program

On a Thursday afternoon at the Durham School of the Arts, eager students pile into a classroom and beeline to tables strewn with wheels, sensors, tracks, and cables. Duke undergraduates stand nearby, ready to instruct the students in a new robotics challenge. �It�s really fun,� says Duke freshman Chris James, one of the RoboCupJunior mentors, an enrichment program spearheaded by Professor Jeff Forbes and funded by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund Student Science Enrichment Program. During weekly afterschool meetings, Duke students from Forbes�s �Teaching with Robotics� seminar class teach local middle schoolers to build and program robots, a challenge that promotes problem solving, teamwork, and creativity. But some of the students have a complaint: They don�t have enough time to work on their robots outside of school.

So Forbes devised a plan to give the students what they want�time with robots in the classroom. �Some kids, who are not very engaged in math class, can get very excited about robots, so why not use that to teach concepts in math class?� says Forbes. Beginning a pilot phase this spring, Forbes�s Adopt a Classroom program will bring Duke undergraduates to a local middle school classroom during the school day to teach curriculum-based lessons using robotics.

�Kids sometimes have a hard time seeing math concepts. But if something they are already interested in, like robots, explains the exact same thing, they�ll remember it longer,� says Demetre Harris, a sixth grade math teacher at W.G. Pearson Magnet Middle School in Durham and host teacher for the Adopt a Classroom program. Through robotics, students will learn math basics like fractions by testing gear ratios or circumference by analyzing wheel size. �The primary goal is to make math more real to the kids and to get more of them interested in robotics, computer science and other STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics] areas,� says Harris. She and Forbes will test out the program this spring, then begin in earnest this fall with Duke undergraduates teaching in Harris�s classroom on a regular basis.

And the experience will benefit more than just local middle schoolers. James, who plans to major in CS, joined Teaching with Robotics in the fall of 2009, and it has since changed his long-term goals. �I never really considered education as a career, and now I am,� he says. �Teaching computer science is great.�