When Xavier Corbellini, a seventh-grader at North Miami Middle School, heard his school was starting a robotics program, he instantly thought of the superhero Iron Man.
The program is called the EV3 Robotics Program, and though it does not offer students any super-suit-building experience, it does give them a chance to build their own robots using Legos.
“First, I was thinking of Iron Man. Then, as I found out more about it, it didn’t go that far, but I was still excited,” Corbellini said. “I was more into Legos than computers. I made spaceships with them before.”
The EV3 Robotics Program is part of a grant in which North Miami Middle and Edison K-8 Center collaborate with Florida International University to help spark students’ interest in STEM-related concepts and careers.
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The $1,950,000 grant from the Florida Department of Education will go toward the program, which is focused on inner-city schools. Students who participate are promised a partial scholarship if admitted into FIU.
FIU’s vice provost for Student Affairs and Success, Jaffus Hardrick, played a key role in helping develop the partnership.
“Part of my responsibility is to come up with collaborative ways that inspire students to learn,” Hardrick said. “We have our students who are in the STEM field teaching these middle school students how to collaborate so they’re encouraging each other to excel academically.”
Since January, 180 students have been meeting after school Monday through Friday for 2 1/2 hours to program and build miniature robots.
The first half-hour consists of students finishing up homework while both high school and FIU students prepare to go over daily assignments.
After that, the students work in groups of two to program and build.
“If you’re really interested in it, it’s like a short period of time,” said Love-Darlie Antenord, an eighth-grader at North Miami Middle School.
Antenord has twice built a robotic Lego dog, and the second one she programmed to bark on its own.
“You program it to bark on the phone, and if you videotape it and record it, it will say it back to you again,” Antenord said.
The first model robot students built was called the educational robot, resembling a car. Next on the list was a robotic arm made to look like a crane.
Corbellini enjoys designing his own creations with the Legos.
“I started going into my own ideas, so I made the Bat-Mobile,” Corbellini said. “I can program it or manually control it with my phone.”
The students use a kit containing 541 small Lego pieces. After building their robots, students program them by using either a computer, a Brick [a builder program that substitutes for a computer] or a cellphone.
German Dulanto of the Augmented Intelligence Academy, one of the developers of the EV3 Robotics Program grant, serves as a mentor to the students and tutors.
He said the kids are learning how to program the robots to react on their own.
“The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency pays you to make human robots. They run competitions every year in California, where you see robots my size programmed [to be] autonomous, so by building on their own, they’re exercising this kind of computer design and engineering,” Dulanto said.
North Miami Middle School and Edison K-8 School were more than 90 percent minority, according to Florida’s Department of Education.
“This program is supporting their reading and mathematics skills in a real world format,” said Patrick Lacouty, principal at North Miami Middle.
Antenord said she improved in math after being involved.
“When you program it to go backwards, that’s negative,” said Anternord, proudly. “I learn a piece of everything.”
Lacouty says his better programmers — Antenord included — are girls.
“I absolutely loved it because as a former engineering major, I know it’s dominated by mostly males,” Lacouty said. “It’s created healthy competition. When you pass by, you hear the chatter, it’s healthy, it’s problem-solving, and that’s the way it should be.”
Adly Norelus of FIU directs the five-year program and in the past four months has been able to see the grant come into fruition.
“This year is pretty much access to the robot,” Norelus said. “Next year, we’re going to do some advance teaching and also take them to local and state competitions, hopefully national ones, as well.”
With the school year coming to an end, summer vacation will begin, and so will the EV3 Robotics six-week summer program at FIU. In addition to building and programming robots, students will have classes in English, math and writing.
“The kids are getting so much from it,” Norelus said. “Sometimes when you sit and write a grant, you have some sort of vision, and here is really a lot more than we expected.”