Apple Valley, CA- Step into the robotics room at Yucca Loma Elementary School and you’ll see students designing prototypes, working out math calculations on paper, writing programs, exchanging ideas, and completing a series of robotics missions, each with their own robot. “Right now I’m trying to find the length and width of what my robot has to do,” first-year robotics student Justin Grantley said, as he jotted notes into a notebook. “For my mission I have to start from the other side of the table and then I will have other missions interfering with the one that I have to do. It’s kind of hard, but it looks very fun.”
The group is led by Elizabeth Aburto, who started the program in 2013 as a response to a group of energetic students who had lost interest in mathematics and needed a positive outlet. “The students started learning to program and soon they were teaching me what they were doing,” she said. The team joined their first competition the following year and has competed every year since.
There are currently seven students in 4th-6th grade on the Yucca Loma Robotics Team. The students meet about once a week to learn about coding and design, and to put what they have learned into action by building, programming, and testing their robots with a series of challenges. In the spring, the group periodically visits classrooms to help teach younger students how to code. Aburto said that this is a great opportunity for her current students because it equips them with interpersonal and presentation skills, as well as for the younger students because it motivates them to work hard and exhibit good character so they can be eligible to participate in the future. The program recently received a grant which will allow the school to purchase another set of robots to allow more 3rd-6th grade students the opportunity to experience robotics.
In addition to designing, building, and programming successful robots, students must also present research projects and uphold positive values and integrity. The Yucca Loma Robotics Team was recognized at last year’s High Desert Robotics Tournament as the FIRST LEGO League Core Values Champions and continues to place an emphasis on teamwork, persistence, and character. “The biggest part of going through the Lego competition is the Core Values and teaching the kids that we are a team, we’re here to work respectfully with together, and the important thing is what we learn on the way,” said Aburto. “Everything else we can teach. I can teach them to code, I can teach them to build, I can teach them to present.”
“I start by teaching them basic coding and basic building, and from there on they have to push themselves in the building component and figure things out together,” said Aburto. “I know what they can do, but I try not to tell them and allow them to problem solve.”
Students emphasized the importance of problem solving, taking their time, and being accurate with their calculations. “Building the robot takes a lot of time, but if you do it wrong the robot will be messed up,” student Sebastian Cochran explained.
“My robot needed to turn, but when I was doing it (one way) it would turn too fast,” said Katrina Pickett, a second-year student in the program. “I had to do it for decimals instead and change the power.”
“It’s challenging, but it’s also fun,” student Melissa Castaneda said.
Each participant was selected to be a part of the team after completing an application process, including a tryout. Students are selected based on their ability to problem solve, their ability to work as a team, their grades, and their good character. “They really come out of their shell, “ said Aburto. “It’s nice for them to be able to work with each other and develop friendships with other kids with similar interests.”
“You’re like a big family,” Zayrah Valenzuela said, as she worked with another student to locate the correct pieces to build an arm for her robot. “Nobody argues and we all get along.”
“Our entire staff is so proud of our robotics team,” said Principal Marcos Clark. “They work so hard and are an inspiration to students in the lower grades who want to join the robotics team in the future.”
The Yucca Loma Robotics Team is currently preparing to compete at the High Desert LEGO Robotics Tournament at Vanguard Preparatory School on Nov. 11, in hopes of advancing to complete in the next round of competition at Legoland California.