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Program makes science and math fun for middle-schoolers

University graduate students serve as Resident teachers in GK-12 project

Students in Robotics Club at Englewood Learning Academy watch a robot drive on the floor

By Chris Casey | University Communications

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. - From the moment you walk in the door, there's something different about this class. Motorized robots blink, roll on the floor and even belt out popular songs.

All 10 middle-schoolers are fully absorbed in their Robotics Club creations at Englewood Learning Academy.

Leading the club is Nili Krausz, a second-year graduate student in mechanical engineering at the University of Colorado Denver. Krausz and five other graduate students from CU Denver and the Anschutz Medical Campus are sharing their knowledge in math and science at several metro-Denver schools as GK-12 Fellows.

The GK-12 Transforming Experiences Project at the University of Colorado Denver | Anschutz Medical Campus is a National Science Foundation (NSF) funded project that supports graduate students in math and science.

The GK-12 Fellows, or residents, spend 12-week sessions with three different middle schools. They receive NSF stipends to teach the youngsters.

Krausz has enjoyed seeing the progress of the Robotics Club students. Their robots are nearly finished.

"It's a lot of fun working with the kids," she says. "Being in the classroom, it's really interesting to see what they get. ... Each of the kids has different strengths. Everyone likes different parts (of creating robots), so I think the project has been good."

Emma and Kate, two seventh-graders in the club, work on programming the LED lights that blink on the robot crafts. "I think it's cool just to see something we use in our everyday lives being built," Emma says. Adds Kate, "Even if it's a basic thing, knowing how they're made is interesting."

Besides working with Robotics Club, Krausz has been a guest teacher in science classes at Englewood Learning Academy, which has 72 students in grades six to eight.

Next week, Krausz will teach a lesson about the subject of her research in a lab at Children's Hospital Colorado -- prosthetics. "They will try out what it's like to be an amputee and they're going to build an arm," Krausz says. "I'm going to bring in some of the stuff I've worked on and show it to everybody."

Suzanne Stark, a science teacher who supervises the Robotics Club at Englewood Learning Academy, says Residents like Krausz help dispel stereotypes. Middle-school students see that scientists aren't all peculiar people with wild hair and white lab coats.

"It's interesting to learn about the cutting-edge things that these (university) students are working on," Stark says. "I learn a lot, and the kids get a lot from the expertise the residents have."

The GK-12 Fellows also gain skills from the program, according to Krausz. "Engineers, especially, have a reputation for being very poor communicators," she says. "So one of the goals is to kind of help us practice communicating to anyone. If you can explain to a middle-schooler what your research is about, then hopefully you can explain it to anyone."

This is in line with one of the intended outcome highlights of the NSF GK-12 program, which is being able to improve communication skills of present and future STEM academics.

If the point of the project is to get kids more excited about math and science -- or in this case, robots -- it certainly has succeeded.

Sam, a seventh-grader, points to his blinking, singing robot. "I've always wanted to be, like, a game programmer," Sam says. "I'm really proud of my little Ebony here."

(Photo: From left, Englewood Learning Academy students Emma, Sam and Kate watch a robot drive on the floor during a session of Robotics Club.)




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