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Glimpse into Robotics

Engaging and Challenging Students through Robotics

Your challenge: Work on a team of three. Design and build a vehicle from scratch. Program lasers underneath the vehicle to follow a black line to a specific location.


Sound complicated? For seventh-graders at Willie Brown Middle School (WBMS), it’s just another project in James Robertson’s robotics class (photo right). His students use the latest technology and equipment to tackle project-based learning at WBMS -- the newest San Francisco public middle school with a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics).


“In robotics, you’re never told what to build, you’re told what it should do,” said Robertson. “It’s really intense what the students are doing now. They really are doing it on their own.”


In group projects, students face challenges like building and programming a robot that lifts something heavy, or one that follows a black line. Students decide group roles as the team’s electrical engineer, computer programmer and computer engineer. To keep students engaged in class, Robertson connects group projects to real-world issues in the community.


“As a student, when I couldn’t see the connection to something bigger, it was harder for me to put it into a perspective that I could hold onto. My learning was more foggy,” he said.


Today, Robertson says he uses his experiences as a student to successfully reach his students. Robertson didn’t get the best grades in school. He eventually discovered he had dyslexia, which made learning a challenge. While enrolled at Solano Community College, Robertson found a love for science. He improved his grades, and began studying biology at the University of California Berkeley. His field studies eventually led him to excavating mummies in Chile.


Robertson found his calling teaching physics at a charter school in Oakland. He worked there for 12 years, and led his students to robotics competitions. When the chance opened to teach STEAM at WBMS, Robertson jumped at the opportunity to challenge himself and grow.


“I play with robots all day -- you don't get cooler than that. Maybe if you threw in dinosaurs,” he said. Robertson’s favorite part of his job is seeing what students from various backgrounds and experiences bring to robotics class, and how they individually shine during projects.


Engineering is about failing repeatedly, and trying again, he said. “That’s one of the most important things that you can get out of the class. No project is done. It’s just due.”


Robertson tells his students to think of him as a coach, not a teacher, so they solve problems themselves. He plans to grow robotics instruction at WBMS, and continue training his students for robotics competitions. Someday, he hopes to host a robotics competitions at WBMS.