Cortina Elementary School students to compete in national robotics competition
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Cortina Elementary School students to compete in national robotics competition

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  • Emily Liu/Higley Unified School District


Students from Cortina Elementary School will compete in a national robotics competition in April – just months after the team formed – and have qualified for an international event.

With an opportunity to give students a challenge while putting science, technology, engineering and math concepts to the test, Cortina teachers launched a Robotics and STEM Club this year.

Founded in September 2016, the school club allows fourth- to sixth-grade students to learn about robotics through guided exploration and the provision of materials.

Students took what they learned and put it into practice at competitions. Five teams competed in January at an event in Fountain Hills. The STEALTHBOTS — one of the teams — won the “teamwork champion award,” which qualified the students to compete in the Arizona VEX IQ Challenge Elementary School State Championship on February 18 and the CREATE U.S. Robotics Championship – VEX IQ- Elementary School Division in Iowa in April.

After the state championship, the team — made up of sixth-grade students Sterling Smith, Brodey Silides and Isaiah Jackson — became the first from the Higley Unified School District to qualify for VEX Worlds, an international robotics championship.

Though the team qualified for the VEX Worlds competition, it will be another year or two before they can afford that trip, teachers said.

“We are so excited and proud of all the accomplishments all of our club members have made this year.  For being our first year, we have come a long ways,” said third-grade teacher Melanie Martin, one of the teacher advisors.

Higley schools are located in Gilbert and Queen Creek.

The students will leave in early April to compete at nationals along with another Higley team:   the Spartan Marauders from Sossaman Middle School in Queen Creek.

“You give them materials and they’re so excited to do it that they learn far more than we can teach them,” fifth grade teacher Shay Timco said.

Much of the learning is done through competition, which puts students in a fun, problem-solving mind-set. Martin said this encourages learning without requiring members to view robots as a scientific discovery or technology.

“You finally see how much you change through every competition,” fifth-grader Brandon Northern said.

Being in the Cortina Robotics and STEM Club in general has increased students’ social and academic engagement in tough problems, science and math, said Timco.

“They are definitely more excited when a challenge comes or when they have a problem that’s not as easy to solve,” Timco said. “They don’t give up right away. They try new things.”

Timco said the program also teaches kids problem-solving as a real-world skill. This, in turn, enhances student understanding of STEM concepts.

“I wanted to learn about how robots really work,” fifth grader Sameer Khan said of his reason for joining the club. “I thought they just ran by themselves, but there’s a lot that goes behind it.”

Since its start, the Cortina Robotics and STEM Club has already expanded to include two arenas, six VEX IQ robotics kits programmed in RobotC and virtual worlds for 25 students thanks to donations and the teachers’ fundraising efforts.

The team is already attracting interest from young classmates. Starting this semester, the club added Ozobots. By learning to use these small toy robots, members are able to teach kindergarten students to work with similar technologies at a young age.

“These kids will take on the responsibility of teaching it to younger kids, so it’s not necessarily the teachers having to know it or learn it,” Martin said. “They’ll have these kids that will come in and be able to expand the minds of those little ones.”