Xplore stops the summer slide

Summer program keeps learning on the agenda--and robots are involved

7/25/2016 | TACOMA, Washington

​Early on a Tuesday afternoon at the Science and Math Institute’s campus at the former Camp Six at Point Defiance, a class of young students tries to tell high-schooler Samantha McCann how to make a jelly sandwich.

The youngsters are learning about robotics. But before they handle an actual robot, they have to figure out how to program it by breaking down an everyday task into simple, concise steps. Which results in some unintentional comedy, as McCann volunteers to be a “robot” and follows their instructions to the letter.

maze553.jpg“Get a piece of bread,” suggests a girl. McCann reaches down and picks up the entire loaf, wrapper and all. “No, no, take it out of the bag!”

“What does she have to do before she can take a piece of bread out of the bag?” asks instructor Maggie Rosner, a 2016 SAMI graduate. “Open the bag, maybe?”

A forest of light bulbs pops up over small heads, and progress is made.

The robotics class is part of Xplore, an opportunity for elementary school students in the third through fifth grades to continue learning during the summer months. Studies show that children lose as much as two months of learning during summer breaks, a phenomenon educators call the “summer slide.” Engaging a child’s curiosity and problem-solving skills arrests the slide, however, and doesn’t have to happen in a traditional classroom setting.

Xplore uses instructors and alumni from both the School of the Arts and the Science & Math Institute to teach content-specific mini-courses that engage young learners in new and creative ways. More than 500 elementary students are in the program this year. Sessions take place Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Each session, students from different elementary schools attend; this particular Tuesday it’s students from Mann and Sheridan. Tomorrow it will be Manitou Park and Arlington’s turn.

At lunch, the teachers, all 2016 graduates of either SAMI or SOTA, take a break from the little ones with their teaching assistants, incoming 10th, 11th and 12th graders from SAMI and SOTA.

“I wanted the opportunity to work with kids, and I like the opportunity to teach about hiking, something I’m passionate about,” said Marina Gallinger, an assistant. “I think it’s so important for kids to get outside, and appreciate the outdoors.”

Dillan Henshaw, a teacher, is passionate about conservation and environmentalism, and also relishes the opportunity to pass on his enthusiasm to a younger audience.

“The kids always want to hear more than I have time to talk about,” he said. “We have fun over at the zoo looking at the animals, too.”

Assistant Amanda Smith, from SAMI’s math team, wants to be a teacher.

“I love working with kids, and seeing that moment when something clicks in their minds,” she said. “It’s magic.”

“I really enjoy being a leader and role model,” added Cennady Coleman. “It’s great to be able to give (the smaller children) a positive experience, because you never know what might be going on in their home lives.”

Logan Scriba’s motivation is more prosaic.

“It’s something I can do besides sitting around all summer and reading,” he said. “Besides, I’ve always had a knack for explaining things.”

Lunchtime done, instruction team leader Matt Sherls, a humanities teacher at SAMI, treats the younger children to an impromptu French horn serenade. This ends abruptly with a gurgle; Sherls turns it into a teachable moment, explaining that the horn accumulates saliva as it’s played. A demonstration of the function of the spit valve follows, prompting a not-entirely-displeased chorus of “EWWWWW!”

On this Tuesday's agenda, two groups will hit the zoo, one exploring the aquariums and the other the Rocky Shores exhibit of polar animals. A third does chemistry experiments in the lab on the other end of campus. “I’ve never done chemistry in my life before!” observes one little girl brightly.

maze552.jpgIn the robotics lab, jelly sandwich exercise finally accomplished, the students break into teams and huddle over laptops. The task: Get a small three-wheeled robot to successfully navigate a cardboard maze taped to the floor. The little roboticists will use a program called “Mindstorm,” which allows them to assemble instructions in sequence on a screen like Lego blocks. Once they have a set of instructions they think will work, the little robot is plugged in and downloads the code. Then comes a test run on the maze.

Many crashes, stalls, backflips and random turns later, the robot programmed by the sole pair of boys in the class makes it to within a foot of the maze’s exit, only to suddenly hang up on a wall. Meanwhile another team hasn’t made it very far in the maze, but has managed to make their robot do a little spinning dance at the start line. This creates much excitement and giggling.

At first, the smallest girl in the room is teamed with two larger and older girls. After a few minutes of not getting the results she wants, she decides to take matters into her own hands and moves to a laptop and robot of her own. Of all the elementary schoolers in the room, she’s the only one who asks “why” questions.

In the end, none of the robots makes it all the way through the maze. Robotics isn’t really the point of the exercise anyway, Rosner notes.

“It’s about linear problem solving, really,” she said. “Sometimes all the groups make it through, sometimes only one or two, sometimes none. But it’s more about the process.”