Twenty teachers from throughout Elmore County Public Schools gathered at the system’s central office on Monday for a day of robotics training. 

From 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., teachers who serve as robotics coaches at their respective schools engaged in training through an Auburn University program called S.C.O.R.E. -- Southeastern Center of Robotics Education.  

The goal of the day was to help the teachers feel comfortable leading their robotics teams. The teachers learned about the resources available to them, VEX IQ competition basics, how to choose their competition teams, what to do at practices and goal setting. At the end of the day, they participated in a mini-tournament for the VEX IQ game called Rise Above.  

Tracy Wright, the district’s STEM director, said the robotics professional development training aligns with the district’s initiative to have at least two robotics teams at each of its middle and elementary schools. 

“Right now, we have robotics teams at all of the high schools and some of the middle schools,” Wright said. “Now we’re becoming more uniformed and offering robotics teams at all elementary and middle schools. Each school will have at least two teams consisting of at least four students per team.”

Wright said the teams can exist in the form of an after school club or an in-school enrichment opportunity. It is up to each school to decide what works best for them.

The district was able to expand its robotics team offerings thanks to two grants, the Alabama Robotics Competition Grant and the Google Buddy grant. It was through the Google Buddy grant that the district gained access to the training offered by S.C.O.R.E.

Each grant offers STEM-related professional development opportunities, as well as robots, robot parts, a curriculum and chances to compete. The teachers present at Monday’s training will participate in the VEX IQ Challenge through the Google Buddy grant.

Through Google Buddy, teachers also have access to Google employees and can arrange to talk to them for advice and guidance. Eclectic Middle’s library media specialist Amy Harrell is set to speak with a Google employee on Wednesday.

“I have a Zoom meeting with Conrad from Switzerland on Wednesday,” she said. “He’s going to coach me on how to be a better coach. This is program is literally connecting us to people around the world.”

Holtville Middle School eighth grade science teacher Stacy Chancellor said one of her favorite things about the program is that all of the needed materials are provided.

“You are supplied with what you need, so every team comes into the competition on the same playing field,” Chancellor said. “It’s not about how much money a school has.”

Matthew Buckley, S.C.O.R.E. program administrator, and Jennifer Spencer, S.C.O.R.E. assistant director explained that although the robots are provided, they are very customizable. There are certain preset robot designs that teams can use or they can come up with their own design.

Throughout the competition season, Spencer said it’s common for teams to tweak their robots to make them work better. Sometimes, teams end up with a robot that’s a lot different from the one they started with, but that’s precisely the point.

“Our overall vision for the robotics teams is that we want our students to be able to define and solve their own problems versus simply solving ones in textbooks,” Wright said. “Students who can do this come up with innovative and creative ideas. We’re trying to help them develop 21st-century skills and we’re preparing them for jobs that haven’t even been invented yet.”

Aside from improving problem-solving and critical thinking skills, robotics teams also help cultivate soft skills like teamwork, collaboration and respect for each other’s ideas, which can be a constant battle with middle school students, according to Chancellor.

After playing Rise Above, where the objective of the game is to use the robot to move cylindrical structures into designated squares, Eclectic Elementary teacher Emily Wells she has a new appreciation for the tasks that students take on.

“This was my first time participating in any sort of robotics competition and it was a lot harder than I thought it would be, but the kids are going to be so much better than us,” she said.

Harrell added that playing the game helped her get a better understanding of the game and its rules.

“Playing the game gave me a better understanding of how to help the kids,” she said. “Seeing all of this will also help me make my goals more clear for my students. My robotics teams are set and we’re preparing to start competing this spring.”