By Bethany Thomas, Ed. S.
Director of Robotics, Purpose Built Schools Atlanta
Robotics has always been part of my everyday life. For years I coached my daughter’s robotics team, and I have been fascinated with science, technology and coding since I was a child. My parents encouraged my interests and enrolled me in computer classes and I got my first Apple IIGS when I was in 4th grade. But while it was such an important and normal part of my life, I recognized that it was not as accessible to my students at Slater Elementary, where I have worked since 2014.
When leaders at Slater asked if I wanted to start the school’s first robotics team in 2014, I was excited. I had volunteered for many years on teams for my children, but now I finally had the opportunity to do the same for my students. As the school’s special education teacher at the time, I recruited several students to be on the inaugural team. I joined forces with Mrs. Markii Jacobs, Slater’s gifted teacher, who found two unused robots in the gifted warehouse and recruited several gifted students to be on the team.
And that’s who made up Slater’s first-ever robotics team: a diverse group of students with gifted and special needs and two women dedicated to teaching our students about robots.
For several days each week, we stayed after school learning about building and programming robots, teambuilding, and core values. Our scholars faced challenges at home and did not always have financial or emotional support. Most of the students on our team were only able to participate because one of the teachers drove or picked them up, fed them dinner, or covered their fees. Our gifted students learned patience working with special needs students. Likewise, our special needs students showed grit in order to keep up with the highflyers.
At our first competition, our students gathered around the table ready for the match to begin. Back then, our robots were powered by AA batteries and I had no idea that the students had run through the batteries. The student launching the robot happened to be a special needs student who typically exhibited difficulty with her behavior, often overreacting to minor details. As her special education teacher, we spent hours teaching her self-regulation skills.
When it was time to launch the robot, it would not power up. As coaches, we were unable to intervene, and the longest 2 and a half minutes of my life ensued. Our precious student stood there pressing buttons on the robot with a smile on her face trying really hard to make it turn on. After the 2 and a half minutes were over, she picked up the robot, brought it over to me, and very calmly told me the batteries were dead. The time I had spent working on de-escalation strategies with her paid off at that very moment, and the true grace within her showed itself.
I laughed as tears poured down my cheeks. She looked at me like I was crazy. We ran to the closest gas station, bought a whole bunch of batteries, and completed the rest of the day. Our team was awarded the gracious professionalism trophy for the manner in which our scholars handled themselves in times of struggle.
When Purpose Built Schools Atlanta came to Slater, I was blessed with the opportunity to build a robotics program for our cluster of schools. I became a full-time robotics teacher and began expanding our programs with 3-D printing and drones. Slater offered robotics classes for all students in pre-K through 5th grade as an enrichment block. Our students dove into robotics, coding, and careers in engineering, robotics and technology. We exposed the students to successful African Americans in STEM careers such as Dr. Lonnie Johnson and Dr. Guion Bluford, Jr. We spent time learning about Katherine Johnson and Dr. Mae Jemison. We continue to encourage our students to dream big like these STEM pioneers.
One of our greatest accomplishments is increasing the number of teams represented at robotics competitions. We started with just one team and now have seven Purpose Built Schools Atlanta robotics teams, with more to come. Dr. Mario Watkins at Carver STEAM Academy and Mr. Shawn Grismore at Thomasville Heights Elementary School now lead the robotics program at their schools. Together, we are creating a pipeline of tech savvy scholars who are prepared for everything the world has to offer.
FIRST Robotics, the international youth organization that operates the FIRST Robotics Competition, is more than just robots. Through the use of robots to maintain excitement and ownership in a project, FIRST Robotics creates a community of students who want to learn, and professionals who want to invest in the future.
Each year when the new FIRST Robotics Competition theme is unveiled, a new project-based-learning journey is launched in the form of an innovation project. Over the past few years we have studied everything from growing food in space to beautifying our area of the Atlanta BeltLine. Students must complete an innovation project and a core values presentation in order to participate in the robot competition. This is where Mrs. Markii Jacobs shines as a partner to the robotics program. The research and development of innovation projects are truly owned by the students in her classroom.
Students at Slater may not come from families with a lot of resources. They may not have the best clothing or the latest gadgets. But they are bright, loving, kind, and deserving. The scholars at Slater now serve as the experts for other teams. They help build robot game tables, develop innovation projects, volunteer to support others, and work together; all while sharing their enthusiasm and spirit of gracious professionalism with others.
It would not have been possible if we didn’t work together to create the best possible opportunities for students here at Slater. By joining forces, we were able to launch a legacy of learning, STEAM education, community engagement, and inclusion.
As Simon Sinek said, “If you want to feel happy, do something for yourself. If you want to feel fulfilled, do something for someone else.” I am thankful because Purpose Built Schools Atlanta has given me the opportunity to feel fulfilled in my job teaching STEAM Education for our Slater scholars.