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Gunn underclassmen aim to change educational outcomes through robotics

Robotics for All program plans to expand with funds from Palo Alto initiative

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Maximilian Goetz was 10 years old when he received his first Lego set -- from there, he developed a deep interest in building and tinkering, eventually leading him to form Robotics for All, an after-school program teaching robotics to elementary school students.

Goetz, a sophomore at Gunn High School, was inspired to create the program to educate children who would not have otherwise had access to such an experience. He recruited classmates to join his organization that was officially formed on April 30, 2017 and launched last fall at Mariano Castro Elementary School in Mountain View. The 16-year-old now has his sights set on expanding the program to Monta Loma Elementary School, also in Mountain View, through a grant from Think Fund, a city of Palo Alto initiative.

"A lot of the kids have been learning it (robotics) since third grade, their parents have been signing them up for expensive summer camps," Goetz said. "Families (whose children attend Mariano Castro Elementary School) work minimum wage, they can't afford this."

Think Fund, which funds teen initiatives, selected Robotics for All as one of 24 grant winners this year. The recipients were recognized during the city's annual Teen Services Gala, held at Mitchell Park Community Center on May 22.

"It's a rubber stamp for our organization that we are doing good work," Goetz said.

Tarn Wilson, an English teacher at Gunn and Goetz's teacher adviser under the Palo Alto school district's Advanced Authentic Research program, commented that Goetz's efforts are "all his vision, all his passion."

Robotics for All was started with the intention of educating students who do not have the same access to science, technology, engineering and math education, particularly in the fields of programming and computer science. Goetz's intentions are indicative of a greater trend in Silicon Valley -- the growth of the achievement gap, where children who live in poorer areas are at an educational disadvantage, particularly at a time when technology is an essential part of the workplace.

However, Goetz finds this organization unique for two reasons. For one, Robotics for All is free, while most similar programs require a fee to join. Additionally, Goetz said that it is much easier for Robotics for All to find instructors because Gunn students are ready and willing to teach the subject. The organization is composed of incoming Gunn juniors Sylvana Domokos, Garrett Tieng, Cathy Hou and incoming Gunn sophomore Willy Hsia, who all serve as instructors.

The impetus behind creating Robotics for All was not just to spread a love for robotics, but through Goetz's experiences in teaching with two different nonprofits: Lego building-initiative Kidizens and the literacy program Reading Partners. In addition to his involvement with robotics organizations like Botball and the First Robotics League, Goetz realized that the skills he learned could easily be taught to students.

For Tieng, Robotics for All is especially satisfying because "you're teaching robotics to people who otherwise wouldn't ... be exposed to it or learn it themselves."

According to Domokos, learning robotics is beneficial for young students regardless of their family's affluence -- her own experience with robotics has positively impacted her academic career.

"It really gives you an analytical approach to pretty much all problems," Domokos said. "For me, that was extremely valuable and that's the only reason I've gotten as far as I have in any school-related career."

In order to create a class that was challenging yet accessible, the Robotics for All instructors wrote a curriculum that uses Lego Mindstorms EV3 sets, robots that are simple in structure yet reflect separate coding, which are ideal for fourth- and fifth-graders because the robots can be manipulated based on different types of coding.

Goetz and Tieng wrote a second, intermediate curriculum that is intended for students who have already taken the first session.

The layout of the class is group-based. Twelve fourth- and fifth-graders, who sign up through the Mountain View Whisman School District, are taught by Robotics for All instructors for two hours per class, seven weeks in a row. The 12 students are divided up into groups of three, with one instructor per group. Students are given Lego Mindstorm EV3 sets and build robots with the provided pieces. They then use an app to program and control their robot's actions; as each week goes by, the students learn to program more and more complex actions. A simple action would be the robot moving in a straight line, while a more complex action would have the robot pick up an object.

The 4-to-1 instruction isn't completely ideal, according to Goetz, but it is as close as the class can get to one-on-one instruction without spending money on extra Lego sets.

Kathryn Shionis, an instructional coach with the Mountain View school district, was assigned to overlook the class.

"The joy on Max's face transferred to the students' faces so easily," Shionis said. "His excitement became their excitement. Also, having a safe place to be and to make mistakes is very important to our students."

So far, with two semesters completed, Robotics for All has seen positive results from their work.

According to Goetz, a highlight of the program is when students receive certificates for participation. Goetz recalled one student who was excited about signing for the next session after the certificate ceremony, and whose mother approached him to thank him for the class.

Calling back to mind a class session, Tieng remembered a situation where there were two female students who were especially quiet and not as engaged as other students -- until Tieng began taught different challenges. The girls in return became involved in the work, an example of how "it takes a little bit of time for the interest to come out," Tieng said.

Domokos looked back at another memory, where a female student was overrun by more vocal male students in her group, but programmed flawlessly once she had a chance to actually work on the computer.

Robotics for All was originally self-funded; Goetz's family provided money to buy the sets, while Domokos donated two laptops. The organization needed more money in order to buy new kits and expand to a new location. Then, Goetz heard about Think Fund and applied for one of their yearly grants. Goetz was shocked when Robotics for All not only received a grant, but was allocated the full $1,000 possible.

This summer, the Robotics for All team is recruiting new instructors and working on its expansion plans. Goetz also held a workshop with teachers at the beginning of June to, among other tasks, continue developing the new curriculum for younger students.

While the members of Robotics for All are hesitant to oversell their efforts, Goetz is clear about his ultimate goal.

"I don't want to exaggerate this, but we're bridging the achievement gap -- that's our goal," Goetz said. "One organization can't solve it entirely, but we're making small steps to close it."


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Like this comment
Posted by Old Person
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 4, 2018 at 9:34 am

This is fantastic. What a great idea.

Like this comment
Posted by Sally Wood
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 4, 2018 at 11:50 am

Has a class in PaloAlto, where he started, been considered?

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