Florida Principals Learn Robotics to Better Teach Students

District educators from Clay County conducted hands-on professional development to improve STEM teaching.

by Teresa Stepzinski, The Florida Times-Union / November 28, 2018

(TNS) — With assorted brightly colored LEGO blocks along with wheels and tiny motors on tables in front of them, Clay County educators Tuesday confronted the question, "how many principals does it take to build a robotic toy car?"

And more importantly, "how will it help their students explore their creativity and critical thinking as well as master the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills necessary for the jobs of the future?"

The answer: all 42 Clay school district principals plus Superintendent Addison Davis and senior administrators.

They participated in an unique hands-on professional development training session focused on teaching STEM and STEAM — which is science, technology, engineering, art and math — to students at each grade level from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. They learned how to incorporate coding and robotics instruction into the school day while meeting state education standards.

The day-long training was in partnership with Northeast Florida Regional STEM2Hub and LEGO Education. A nonprofit, STEM2Hub offers educational programs and expertise in STEM to Clay and six neighboring counties in the region.

A team from LEGO Education, which provides training to teachers and educational specialists nationwide, led the program that featured the popular toy in lessons including basic coding, robotics and computational thinking.

Clay is among the first county, if not the first in Florida, to train all its school principals how to be actively engaged in creative, collaborative critical thinking, learning processes. It is important to embed those skills in the lessons taught to students in all subjects, Davis noted.

"This is about taking a vision and making it come to fruition," Davis said of the initiative designed to benefit students.

"We continue to talk about how we build and prepare our students for the future and this is the way we do it. We are trying to create greater excitement for learning. We are trying to expose our students to more of a robotic, advanced technology perspective of learning. And this is the way we are going to prepare our students," Davis said.

Robotics currently is a popular and innovative extracurricular activity in the district, and some schools also have a robotics class. But more needs to be done, Davis said.

"What we're trying to do is teach the necessary skill sets internally within the classrooms so we have hands-on activities where kids are really highly engaged in the learning process and are able to become design thinkers, are able to problem solve and be prepared for jobs that don't exist today but will in the future," Davis said.

The principals will take what they learn back to their schools. They will pass it on to their teachers, who in turn will incorporate into their classroom lessons for all subjects.said.

The goal, Davis said, is to create a mentality where students are creative, collaborative, communicate and critically think.

"If we get them to do those four elements every single day in their classrooms they will be prepared to compete inside and outside of our classrooms," Davis said.

Principal Treasure Pickett of Oakleaf High School and her colleagues Tuesday built their way up from basic LEGO robotics such as a mini-desk fan to more complex projects such as a small battery-operated car and the coding to operate it.

"It's fun. We're learning," Pickett said with a smile as she carefully pieced together the foundation of a small robot. As a youngster, she played with Lincoln Logs because they didn't have many LEGOs back then, she said.

Kids today, she said, are all about LEGOs. That will inspire and help them learn, Pickett said.

"I think it will bring out creativity and exposing students' creativity," said Pickett, who is the district's 2018 Principal of the Year. Students also will benefit from learning the technology of robotics as well as translate the critical thinking skills required in trouble-shooting and problem solving to other subjects and aspects of their lives.

Kathleen Schofield, executive director of STEM2Hub, said similar training will be held in the other school district's in organization's service area. It is funded by a $975,000 state appropriation. State Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach was instrumental in getting the money for the program, she said.

"It's to assure all children get access to the skills they will need for the jobs of tomorrow," said Schofield, who previously served as a Clay school district administrator.

©2018 The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.