Learning Scale, Proportion & Programming with "Smallcrest"

by: Raffi Darrow, Ebytes Editor
In the lobby of the Janet Root Theatre a team of sixth graders adeptly maneuver LEGO robots through a model course - avoiding buildings, gliding into parking spaces, making deliveries from one model structure to the next. The course looks familiar to many of the passersby at STEAMfest. "Hey, is that Landy Hall?" asks an observer. Indeed. Landy Hall, the Janet Root Theatre, the Athletic Center, and even a model of the future Innovation Center and Community Commons, the course is a scale model of the Shorecrest campus. Dubbed "Smallcrest" by its seventh grade engineers, the project is a prime example of interdisciplinary project-based learning, faculty collaboration, and experiential education.

Teaching by Example

Often encouraging students to take risks and to think differently, seventh grade math teacher Christine Idinge wanted to take a risk herself and launched a new project to teach her students scale and proportion. She remembered that a few years back Media Specialist Courtney Walker had the idea of working with students to 3D print a to-scale model of the Shorecrest campus. Following suit, Mrs. Idinge charged her students to build a miniature scale of campus, this time, using reclaimed materials and art supplies. The math challenge? The models would be precisely to scale, requiring accurate measurements of the buildings, playgrounds and athletic fields.

She brought the idea to Middle School technology teacher Christine Scoby, who suggested sixth graders could program miniature robots to navigate the campus. This allowed seventh grade to use project-based learning to solidify the concepts of ratios, scale and proportion, while sixth grade technology classes applied their robotics unit.

“I thought the kids could physically measure parts of campus and then scale them down and recreate them so sixth grade then had something to play.” Mrs. Idinge explained. “The unit taught them scale and proportion, as well as problem solving. How do you indirectly measure something you can’t reach? Like the height of the gym…” The answer seventh graders came up with was shadow reckoning, one of the great arts of the ancient Greeks.

In small groups of 3-4 students, seventh graders spent a few days around campus measuring buildings, athletic fields and playgrounds. Then they built Smallcrest on the classroom floor. “Unlike the miniature golf hole project previous seventh grade classes did, where we had all these great projects but nowhere to store them, this year the whole grade added to one massive project instead of many smaller ones. The buildings were boxes wrapped in paper and velcroed to a base of science fair boards,” Mrs. Idinge shared.

Seventh grader Nickolas R said, “Building Smallcrest was mostly about collaboration. You had to work well with your partner or you couldn’t make anything good in this project.”

“Yah, and if one group’s building looked bad it would make the whole project look bad,” added seventh grader Sofiya I.

The students loved the building and creating, but found converting the measurements to be a chore. “They learned more from two weeks of building Smallcrest than they would have in the classroom, especially the problem solving skills,” Mrs. Idinge insisted.

Programming Robots to Navigate Smallcrest

Once completed, Smallcrest was placed on the floor of the technology side of Middle School’s Innovation and Design Studio. The sixth grade robotics unit began, and LEGO MINDSTORMS EV3 kits along with EV3 Programming software were introduced. Students constructed and programmed interactive, autonomous robots using LEGO parts. The class learned how to program basic tasks, such as moving forward and back, turning, etc.

The seventh grade Smallcrest creators wrote missions for the robots to accomplish around the miniature campus. “As a class, sixth graders reviewed each challenge’s pros and cons,” Mrs. Scoby explained. “Then, each 2-person team had to choose one challenge. They shared a robot with another team. Some teams had to add an attachment to the basic robot to fulfill their challenge. Some of them built arms to carry things or sweep items into a location.”

Challenges included picking up objects at one part of campus and leaving them elsewhere, bringing a food cart to SAGE, removing a tire from the Lower School sandbox, or scoring a virtual touchdown on Haskell Field.

“The sixth graders loved the idea. When they actually accomplished a mission they were high-fiving each other and cheering other teams on,” Mrs. Scoby shared excitedly.

Smallcrest was displayed and demonstrated by students at St. Pete STEAMfest, where it was well received by the greater community.

Sixth grader Keira H assisted at STEAMfest and is on the Middle School robotics team. She enjoyed the project and said, “I think people liked seeing it at STEAMfest. The project was fun. It was fun to work with friends. It was hard because four of us were sharing one robot. It was cool to navigate the school in miniature form. My group’s challenge was to move a car from one parking spot to another.”

Sixth grader Adelaide O had never programmed robots before this project. “Learning how to do the turns and rotations using angles and degrees was confusing at first but then we got in a groove and it got easier. I got along well with my partner and we did a lot of working together, and we traded off doing different things. It was just a really fun project overall.”

“It was fun programming the robots and it was fun building them,” said Sixth grader Leah M. “It’s exciting when your robot finally gets to the spot you want it to go to. My challenge was going around the bases on the baseball field. I think the seventh grade did a really good job [building Smallcrest], it was a really good replica of the school. It was challenging but not way too challenging.”

For LEGO, not unlike Shorecrest Middle School, learning through doing, having fun, and succeeding is key. Through this hands-on project, two grades were able to learn from failure and problem solve, be part of a design process, use art, engineering and math skills, practice collaboration, communication and responsibility - all while having fun. Not to mention the skills of math and programming that were cemented. Innovative STEAM projects are also supportive of different learning styles.

(more photos below)

Read about other Shorecrest cross-curricular Middle School Projects:

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Shorecrest Preparatory School is a private, non-sectarian, coeducational, college preparatory day school for students preschool through high school, located in St. Petersburg, Florida.