September 2016 – Vol. 29 No. 1

Starting a Robotics Club with Students at the Helm

Posted: Monday, November 4th, 2013

by Tamara Araya

It all started off with an email forwarded from my principal and it read, “Any of you interested in starting a robotics team?  If so, respond to the email below.”  The attached email was from a district employee, Kathy, whose husband and son recently started a robotics club at their high school.  The email asked, “Why hasn’t anyone started a robotics club in our district?”  There are six major high schools in our district and not one had a robotics club, so I naively replied with great enthusiasm, “I would love to!”  Did I mention that I have a biology credential and absolutely no robotics background what so ever? 

That weekend I met with Kathy and her husband at the Los Angeles Regional FIRST Robotics Competition and got to see firsthand what they were so enthusiastic about.  I was in shock.  Never have I witnessed so many students working, laughing, chanting, and crazy about a project like this one.  The support by parents and businesses was nothing I had seen before. This was more than just a group of students interested in computer programming, it was a team of grant writers, fundraisers, accountants, graphic designers, engineers and business people all working together as a team.  I fell in love.

Inspired to include more STEM in my classroom, earlier that month had I transformed my electricity and magnetism unit in my physical science class into a project-based unit where the students built a remote-operated submersible that completed different tasks in the school pool.  I found the project to be stressful and unpredictable. With this experience was fresh in my mind,  I considered Kathy’s question about why no one had started a robotics club in our district.  Is it because of the lack of money, materials, knowledge or time that drives so many teachers away from completing such a task?  I knew I didn’t want another project where I put more time into it than the students, where I would be organizing the meetings and keeping the team going.  I had so much on my plate already.  I am a mother of two young children, an advisor for the solar boat club and was teaching an extra hourly.  The idea of leading another project was just not possible, especially a robotics club.  However, after seeing so many students interested and engaged at the robotics competition, how could I say no?  I told myself it would have to be run and organized by the students and that I would be there to mentor and help find support when needed.  I think this has been the best decision I have ever made.

The students came to the first meeting and immediately started organizing and dispersing tasks to discover what is involved in a robotics club.  From there forward they met once a week to share information about what they found during their research and soon the club was formed.  The natural leaders began to take charge of the meetings and others followed without hesitation.  As we met during the summer to work on robotics, students found their strengths and started running committees.  I supported the students by giving them a room to work in and found mentors from local business and universities to guide the student questions and projects.  Although I could not help answer technical questions, I was good at helping them find the people who could.

Having a student driven club is no easy task.  Most students are naturally unorganized and they have a hard time seeing the future.  They are inexperienced at working with adults and the real world.  But one thing they are good at is getting back on their feet when they fail, and they bring a big desire to learn.  With positive reinforcement, self-reflections and constant critique, students are learning and adapting to their environment.

Open ended and thought provoking problems are often areas of instruction that are difficult to cover in a science class assignment.  Clubs like these give students the opportunity to experience these types of problems on a daily basis.  Students walk away from this experience with leadership skills, improved critical thinking and real life application that no science class assignment comes close to offering.  It is for these reasons that I stepped out of my comfort zone and started the first ever student run robotics club at my school.

My students’ goal is to win, but I have more in mind for them.  I want them to experience an engineering business first-hand and understand how it takes many different types of people to make a project happen.  I want them to experience leading and learning from their mistakes.  I want them feeling safe to try something new and know how to ask for help when needed.  No matter how we do in the FIRST Competition, the students are already showing me, and themselves, that they have met these goals.

Tamara Araya is a CSTA member. She teaches at Long Beach Poly High School. 

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From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy:

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California Science Assessment Update

Posted: Wednesday, October 12th, 2016

by Jessica Sawko

In June 2016 California submitted a waiver application to discontinue using the old CST (based on 1998 standards) and conduct two years of pilot and field tests (in spring 2017 and 2018, respectively) of the new science assessment designed to support our state’s current science standards (California Next Generation Science Standards (CA-NGSS) adopted in 2013). The waiver was requested because no student scores will be provided as a part of the pilot and field tests. The CDE received a response from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) on September 30, 2016, which provides the CDE the opportunity to resubmit a revised waiver request within 60 days. The CDE will be revising the waiver request and resubmitting as ED suggested.

At its October 2016 North/South Assessment meetings CDE confirmed that there will be no administration of the old CST in the spring of 2017. (An archive of the meeting is available at Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Some ways to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service in your classroom

Posted: Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

by Carol Peterson

1) To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, Google has put together a collection of virtual tours combining 360-degree video, panoramic photos and expert narration. It’s called “The Hidden Worlds of the National Parks” and is accessible right from the browser. You can choose from one of five different locales, including the Kenai Fjords in Alaska and Bryce Canyon in Utah, and get a guided “tour” from a local park ranger. Each one has a few virtual vistas to explore, with documentary-style voiceovers and extra media hidden behind clickable thumbnails. Ideas are included for use in classrooms. Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

2016 Award Recipients – Join CSTA in Honoring Their Accomplishments

Posted: Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

CSTA is pleased to announce the winners of the 2016 CSTA Awards for Distinguished Contributions, Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award, 2014 and 2015 PAEMST-Science recipients from California, and the 2016 California PAEMST Finalists. The following individuals and organizations will be honored during the 2016 California Science Education Conference  on October 21- 23 in Palm Springs. This year’s group of awardees are truly outstanding. Please join us in congratulating them!

Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award

John Keller

John Keller

The Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award honors an individual who has made a significant contribution to science education in the state and who, through years of leadership and service, has truly made a positive impact on the quality of science teaching. This year’s recipient is John Keller, Ph.D. Dr. Keller is Associate Professor, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Co-Director, Center for Engineering, Science, and Mathematics Education, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. In her letter of recommendation, SDSU science education faculty and former CSTA board member Donna Ross wrote: “He brings people together who share the desire to make a difference in the development and implementation of programs for science teaching. Examples of these projects include the Math and Science Teaching Initiative (MSTI), Noyce Scholars Program, Western Regional Noyce Initiative, and the Science Teacher and Researcher (STAR) program.” Through his work, he has had a dramatic impact on science teacher education, both preservice and in-service, in California, the region, and the country. He developed and implemented the STEM Teacher and Researcher Program which aims to produce excellent K-12 STEM teachers by providing aspiring teachers with opportunities to do authentic research while helping them translate their research experience into classroom practice. SFSU faculty member Larry Horvath said it best in his letter:“John Keller exemplifies the best aspects of a scientist, science educator, and mentor. His contributions to science education in the state of California are varied, significant, and I am sure will continue well into the future.” Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

NGSS: Making Your Life Easier

Posted: Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

by Peter A’hearn

Wait… What?

NGSS is a big shift. Teachers need to learn new content, figure out how this whole engineering thing relates to science, and develop new unit and lesson plans. How could NGSS possibly make life easier?

The idea that NGSS could make our lives easier came to me during the California State NGSS Rollout #1 Classroom Example lesson on chromatography. I have since done this lesson with high school chemistry students and it made me think back to having my own students do chromatography. I spent lots of time preparing to make sure the experiment went well and achieved the “correct” result. I pre-prepared the solutions and organized and prepped the materials. I re-wrote and re-wrote again the procedure so there was no way a kid could get it wrong. I spent 20 minutes before the lab modeling all of the steps in class, so there was no way to do it wrong. Except that it turns out there were many. Learn More…

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the K-12 science specialist in the Palm Springs Unified School District and is Region 4 Director for CSTA.

Celestial Highlights, September 2016

Posted: Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

by Robert C. Victor. Twilight sky maps by Robert D. Miller. Graph of evening planet setting times by Dr. Jeffrey L. Hunt 

Our evening twilight chart for September, depicting the sky about 40 minutes after sunset from SoCal, shows brilliant Venus remaining low, creeping from W to WSW and gaining a little altitude as the month progresses. Its close encounter within 2.5° N of Spica on Sept. 18 is best seen with binoculars to catch the star low in bright twilight. The brightest stars in the evening sky are golden Arcturus descending in the west, and blue-white Vega passing just north of overhead. Look for Altair and Deneb completing the Summer Triangle with Vega. The triangle of Mars-Saturn-Antares expands as Mars seems to hold nearly stationary in SSW as the month progresses, while Saturn and Antares slink off to the SW. Learn More…

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Written by Robert Victor

Robert Victor

Robert C. Victor was Staff Astronomer at Abrams Planetarium, Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing skywatching opportunities for school children in and around Palm Springs, CA. Robert is a member of CSTA.