- Associated Press - Saturday, March 19, 2016

DECATUR, Ala. (AP) - At about 6:15 Monday night, the alien landed. The moment for which Banks-Caddell Elementary School students Demarcus Willard, Nate Steeples and Aimaya Moody had prepared since November had arrived.

“We’ve built hundreds of robots. Now we have to get this one to do what we need it to,” Willard said.

More than 200 Decatur City Schools students faced the same challenge as they gathered at Ingalls Harbor on Monday evening for the district’s annual robotics expo.

“This is an opportunity for students to showcase their talents and show parents and the community what they have learned,” math teacher and Decatur-Austin Robotics Coalition (DARC) sponsor Susan Haddock said.

This year, Haddock created what she called the alien challenge. She said elementary and middle school students were challenged to first have their robot approach the alien to determine if it was friend or foe.

“If the make-believe alien was friend, then they had to build something to carry the alien food,” she said.

It’s a challenge made more difficult because students had to perform the task in front of hundreds of parents, school administrators and peers.

Willard, who was participating in his third district-wide expo, said his nerves are always on edge. But the students from Banks-Caddell have managed to perform the challenge for the past three years.

“We prepared by doing this in front of our school,” Willard said.

“It was difficult, though,” said Steeples, who has been on the robotics team two years.

Austin senior Brady Dial, who is head of engineering for DARC, said the earlier students learn to perform in front of large crowds the better prepared they will be when they reach high school.

He started in the school system’s robotics program when he was a seventh-grader at Cedar Ridge Middle.

“I got hooked, and by the time I became a leader for DARC, I was ready because of my experience,” Dial said.

Decatur City Schools has one of the best-known robotics programs in the state and consistently has earned berths in the BEST Regional Robotics Competition at Auburn University, which includes teams from up and down the Eastern seaboard.

Haddock attributes the program’s success to students starting in elementary school.

In addition to DARC, the district has robotic clubs in every elementary and middle school. They use LEGO Robotics, which come in a series of kits with software and hardware, allowing students to create customizable, programmable robots.

Moody, a third-grader who is involved with robotics for the first time, said it’s not as easy as some think.

“We have about 200 pieces, and sometimes it doesn’t work after we put it together,” she said.

Willard, who is one of the school system’s most experienced elementary LEGO builders and wants to be a scientist, said he encourages new club members to start with smaller kits. He said the most difficult part of programming the robot is getting it to work with the iPad.

Robotics is part of the district’s mission to ensure every grade 3-12 student has access to science, technology, engineering and math. The STEM curriculum takes in an interdisciplinary and applied approach to the subject areas. Rather than teach the four as separate subjects, it integrates them into examples based on real-world applications.

“The hands-on experience with robotics is valuable,” Dial said.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates jobs dealing with science, technology, engineering and math will grow 17 percent, and there will be 1.2 million unfulfilled jobs in these fields by 2017. The organization’s 2011 report said America will have 1.2 million jobs requiring STEM skills in 2018.

DCS already had robotics and an engineering camp before the U.S. Chamber of Commerce issued a critical report in 2011 about U.S. schools’ failure to prepare students for STEM careers.

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Information from: The Decatur Daily, http://www.decaturdaily.com/decaturdaily/index.shtml

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