Neuse Charter Showcases Robotics Program

By: Shannon Mann

With an ever-growing interest in S.T.E.M and S.T.E.A.M programs in schools these days, Neuse Charter School is inviting the public to see how that learning has exploded at their Smithfield school.

On March 21, 2018 from 5-7pm in the school’s gym, students from Neuse Charter’s 13 robotics teams will display their robots and season models, and answer questions from the public about their robotics program, higher-level competitions and what it takes to get a robotics team started.

Angela Jenkins, Neuse Charter School elementary technology teacher and coach for the First Tech Challenge (FTC) team and the First Lego League team (FLL), said the showcase has an added benefit of helping students achieve program requirements. “Public speaking and community outreach are two of the building blocks in our program,” said Jenkins. “The teams participating in the free showcase look forward to both explaining what they’ve learned throughout the current season and providing an opportunity for Neuse families (current and future) to learn about our robotics program for their child.”

While it might seem with 13 teams ranging in grades 1st-12th that Neuse Charter has a long legacy in robotics, but the truth is that their program only started during the 2016-1017 school year.

Jenkins said when they held their first information meeting they were afraid that no one would show up. “We had more than 50 students interested in joining a 10-member team,” Jenkins said. “I think our students were already interested in S.T.E.A.M fields, they just needed an outlet.”

Jenkins, along with two other middle school teachers, Jeff Matisoff and Mike Ward, guided the team through their first competition in November 2016 with only two months of preparation time.

As more students learned about the program, more asked to join, but the rules were firm about the team size. The coaches found the more students they turned away, the more the students asked for additional teams to be formed.

“As coaches, we felt horrible and decided that we would not turn away students this year,” said Jenkins. “Between grants and fundraising our school started enough teams to accommodate everyone.”

But while participation level and fundraising could support the formation of the teams, the students still needed mentors. At a minimum teams meet weekly, but once competition season is in full swing teams could meet several times per week to improve their skills…that’s a lot of volunteer manpower.

Six teachers, seven parents and one high school freshman mentor, guide and direct the chaos.

Jennifer Cade, an NCS 3rd grade teacher, is lead coach for the largest grouping, the First Lego League Jr. students.

“Our level is designed to introduce S.T.E.M concepts to kids in grades 1st-4th while exciting them through a brand they know and love – Lego,” said Cade.

Students in the school’s intermediate academy (5th, 6th, and 7th grade) participated on one of two First Lego League (FLL) teams. Also the first type of team to form last year.

Jeff Matisoff, a 6th grade math teacher and co-coach with Jenkins to the FLL team, said this team researches and focuses on real-world problems. “They are challenged to develop a solution,” he said. Students also design, build, and program a robot using Lego materials that competes on a table-top playing field.

A mix of intermediate and upper academy students (grades 7-12) made up the school’s only First Tech Challenge (FTC) team this year.

James Evans, a 7th grade student, was a founding member of the school’s first FLL team and advanced this year to join the FTC team.

From building smaller robots from Legos to building metal robots from a kit, Evans said he has grown in his knowledge of construction and programming.

“I have learned many things from better programming, to building, to working with a team,” Evans said. “Working as a team is very important because I never expected to get so far.”

The FLL and FTC teams competed in November 2017 and January 2018 and both had impressive showings. One FLL team, the Robotic Stormtroopers, even earned a spot competing at the N.C. FLL State Championship. The FLL Jr. teams will present in April at a First Robotics Competition (FRC) state tournament at Campbell University.

Jenkins encourages the public to attend the showcase in March as a way to learn more about the programs offered and possibly spark more interest about program formation throughout Johnston County. Admission is free and kids can design their own robotics button for $1.

“Our students are so excited to share what they have learned through robotics,” said Jenkins. “They want others to know about how this program can excite passion, encourage young minds and grow creative, critical-thinking students. We can’t wait for the public to see what Neuse Charter robotics students have been doing this year.”