Duke robotics students teach middle schoolers

November 15, 2004

by SHAUN LOCKHART, The Herald-Sun

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Building a robot has always been a dream of Jy-erick Stevons, an 8th-grader at Chewning Middle School.

Although he\'s built several robots out of Legos, he\'s never had the computer equipment necessary to give his contraptions life -- until now.

Stevons, and about 30 of his classmates, are participating in a mentoring program with Duke University, where students in Jeffrey Forbes\'s robotics class are teaching Chewning students the basics of making a robot.

On Saturday about a half-dozen Chewning students were hunched around laptop computers at Duke\'s main campus learning how to program Lego robots -- built by Chewning students -- to navigate a maze.

Since the program began in September, Chewning students have been meeting four days a week after school to learn about science and robotics. Students from Duke visit the school twice a week to give the students hands-on instruction. Chewning students occasionally visit Duke\'s campus as well.

Forbes, an assistant professor of the practice of computer science, said the program had been beneficial not only to Chewning students, but to his as well.

Forbes said having to teach the material to others had accelerated the learning of his students.

\"One of the best ways to learn is to teach,\" Forbes said. \"[The Duke students] really have to understand what they are doing.\"

As the program progresses through the year, the Chewning students will work on more advanced projects along with their Duke mentors.

Sophomore Kefu Du, 19, of Memphis, Tenn., a biology major at Duke, said it had been an interesting experience teaching -- something he\'d never done before.

Du said that since the program began, the students built robots that could keep themselves from driving off a table and guide themselves after bumping into a wall.

\"Some of the kids really surprised me how fast they catch on,\" Kefu said.

Freshman Maura Styczynski, 19, of Bloomington, Ind., agreed and said the students\' grasp of mathematics was particularly impressive.

Rebecca Small, a science teacher at Chewning, started the after-school program there this year. Students meet Monday through Thursday and once on Saturday.

Small said it was difficult to get students interested and parents committed to bringing their children.

She said that science wasn\'t something most kids in middle school viewed as fun.

\"We try to teach them that science is fun,\" said Small, explaining her emphasis on hands-on projects.

Duke provides funding for the project through a faculty new course grant from the Research Service-Learning program.

Small said that she hoped other schools created similar programs so Durham could have its own scientific competitions within the district.

Faridah Bori, 11, a 7th-grader at Chewning, said she liked robots before participating in the program and was now considering a career in robotics.

\"This is fun,\" Bori said. \"I always liked robots.\"

She also had nothing but praise for the Duke students.

\"If you are doing something wrong, they\'ll explain it in a nice way,\" Bori said.