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A rural town in Ohio shows strong in the international Wonder League Robotics Competition

Friday, November 4, 2016

One afternoon Bridget Scofinsky’s 11-year-old daughter Ella told her that she wanted to be a robotics engineer. Being part of a small rural community in Northeast Ohio, there weren’t many learning programs for curious and budding engineers, so Bridget did what any enterprising mother who also happened to be a teacher would do. She started a robotics club of her own at Damascus Elementary, the school that she teaches in.

After doing some research, Bridget found out about Dash & Dot and the Wonder League Robotics Competition and jumped right in! The school purchased 5 sets of robots to get the club started, and 80 students signed up right away. “Students with varying levels of academic ability and social skills signed up! Boys and girls alike were clamoring to get in the club. I couldn’t say no to anyone regardless of academic or behavioral track record because who am I to know if this might be the thing that clicks for them? The thing that they discover they’re really good at? So we took them all: Gifted kids hungry for a challenge and kids who have struggled with academics for one reason or another. Kids who have unlimited access to technology and kids with very limited access. Kids who model good behavior choices consistently and those who may have struggled with behavior in the classroom setting. It is my hope that this opportunity knocks down barriers, cuts through labels, and gives them all a place to let their light shine,” Bridget said.

There were way too many students interested and not enough robots. West Branch is a close knit-community made up of several small towns. The area has a long history of coming together and getting things done. Nearby Salem was a hub in the Underground Railroad and hosted the first Women’s Rights Convention in Ohio in 1850.

Bridget posted a Donors Choose project to raise funds for the robots, which was funded within minutes thanks to a blended family from the community who made the donation in memory of their late spouses, Douglas Bacconi and Candice Boyle. Over 20 other families got together to donate the remaining robots, accessories, and mats so that everyone who signed up could participate. She was also able to recruit 40 parent volunteers — 1 parent for every 2 students participating!

“When my daughter told me she wanted to join the robotics club, I thought she was mistaken. This is the first time I heard about coding for elementary school-aged children. She stated that she thought coding robots would be very ‘interesting and fun.’ I volunteered out of a peaked interest and curiosity,” said Kim McKinley, a parent and robotics coach. The community has been incredibly generous, excited, and supportive.

At first the students were unsure about what coding even was and if they could do it. Bridget encouraged them to start and figure things out on their own, telling them that she didn’t know how to code either. Usually in school students are told what they need to learn. This was a unique opportunity for children to take ownership of their own learning and figure things out themselves. “Unlike their homework, that I have to constantly nag at them to do, they love playing with Dash and Dot! As a parent, I love that they are having fun and developing skills for the future,” Mikki Kanagy, another parent, says.

It’s 4 weeks into the program now, and all teams finished Mission 1 of the Wonder League Robotics Competition on the very first practice day after the missions were announced. Tagg M, a participant in the competition says “I love making a plan, building it on the iPad, and then watching Dot and Dash do it. Probably my favorite one is the Wonder App Scroll Quest, which is really hard. I have to try a lot sometimes, but I feel really good when I get it done right — and then I just want to try more Scroll Quests! I now want to be both a robot engineer and a gym teacher. Maybe even a scientist now.”

We’re hearing that a lot from kids in this program. “My child, who I had no idea knew anything about the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) program, now declares STEM as a future educational goal,” Kim McKinley said. Several people in the town who have STEM careers are coming out of the woodwork to volunteer at the Robotics Club and talk about how STEM relates to what they do. “We have scientists, programmers, engineers, and a specialist from the State Department so far! I was inspired by your Role Model Google Hangout schedule, so I asked if anyone would be interested in talking to the kids about how STEM applies to their career,” Bridget says.

We can’t wait to hear about how this group of fearless Wonder League Robotics Club champs progress in the competition and beyond. Perhaps the next Silicon Valley will be in Ohio. Go Warriors!

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