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Success of First Robotics Class Leads to Expansion of District Curriculum and a Gearing Up to ‘Take Flight’ at CHS

Popularity and academic vitality of high school robotics course, combined with CCS Foundation advocacy, community support and an anonymous donation, wire pathway for future

(Circleville) – For Circleville High School Principal Chris Thornsley, the concept elicited an automatic reaction.  “Sure,” he had thought, “who wouldn’t want a robotics course in their high school?”  But the timing was a bit awkward. With a new Circleville school campus still under construction, the much-needed rebuilding of athletic and performance facilities underway, and with an ongoing demand for acquiring new technology and computerization there were ample priorities to address.

But two assets were on hand.  Circleville had a teacher who was certified to teach robotics and was already teaching computer and technology programs in the high school.  And, the relatively young Circleville City School Foundation was emerging as a significant resource, thanks to its increased fundraising outreach and a dedicated corps of volunteers who believe in its motto – ‘Enhancing Educational Opportunities.’

Recently the Foundation gave the school district the second part of a three-year ‘step-down’ grant of $9,000 to fund the classroom and technology needs necessary to build the program from scratch.  Now getting ready to build from a successful first year, Robotics teacher Joshua Thomas and other school officials like Superintendent Kirk McMahon and Thornsley are hailing the ‘seed’ funds provided by the Foundation as ‘an instrumental plug’ that provided the impetus for a program now fully invested into the district’s curriculum and expanding.

“For the Foundation this was an opportunity that excited everyone on our board,” notes Chair Mollie Hedges.  “We had a board member who encouraged Chris and Josh to write a proposal for us to consider. At the same time he easily sold the concept to our board.  The vote was unanimous and we were very proud to initiate funding necessary for three years to get robotics rolling forward.”

But those ‘seed funds’ from the CCS Foundation were just the beginning.  During its first year in existence (school year 2014-2015) the robotics class not only attracted students but also a $3,000 grant from Pittsburgh Plate Glass and the anonymous five-year commitment from a local family and exceeding the Foundation’s initial award, will provide additional funding for the expansion of program.

“The rather robust response from community members supporting our fundraising efforts and extending their support through their personal generosity has been a source of tremendous motivation and pride for our organization,” said Hedges. “It really made it possible for us to commit to funding robotics and the additional private support will allow the course to extend its reach,” she added.

A review of the first year reveals a glimpse of what it takes to get a robotics class moving forward.  “Acquiring material, purchasing equipment, and designing a syllabus for a first-year robotics class requires some fairly sophisticated investigation and research.  It isn’t a course that is prevalent in high schools nor are robotics curriculums uniformly constructed across school districts,” explained Thornsley.  For him, having a teacher already on staff who was prepared for the step forward and who was familiar with what was required was a “huge advantage.”

“This first year class attracted students who were interested and had shown an aptitude for math, science and computer classes,” explained Thomas.  “A number of them I had already become familiar with through technology classes and sometimes just their own pure interest in the subject matter.  All through the year it was rewarding just to hear the students talk enthusiastically about what they did each day in the class and watch them learn through trial and error,” Thomas said.  “All seventeen of the first-year students felt they were learning and in some ways conquering problems they might encounter in ‘real life’ experiences. Often they would arrive early, stay late, and work on weekends with their classmates to get projects completed or work through problems that gave them the results that they needed,” he added.

Despite being a newcomer in the secondary education robotics world, in April Circleville High School fielded a team of students to compete in the National Robotics Challenge held in Marion, Ohio.  Though there were a number of teams that competed in the various events, the CHS team was the highest placing first-year team in the ‘autonomous vehicle’ competition, earning fourth. “The team was ‘wired’ for this competition,” noted Thomas, “and stayed up almost all night working on rebuilding and improving one of our robots for the competition.”

With blessings and support from the superintendent and principal, Thomas now has more of a diagram of what the next five years of robotics will bring. “This course has been popular among not only the students who were enrolled in the class the first year but it is a source of school pride and vitality for many others who attend CHS,” stated Thornsley.  “Obviously there have been more students who have inquired about what they need in preparation, but there is somewhat of a surge in the interest and participation in the sciences and mathematics classes,” he emphasized.  “Robotics not only represents a huge initiative for our schools but an important investment in our community.  We hope that many of these students will return to Circleville as engineers and technicians living and working in Central Ohio.”

Thomas added that of the 17 students in class this year, 15 plan to pursue engineering degrees.

For the coming years robotics will grow upward and downward.  A new middle-school course is on tap that will provide an introduction to robotics for students who show an interest in engineering concepts.  There will be Robotics I, II, and III courses offered at the high school with broader exploration of engineering, program development, and technology applications. Next year, the students will be tackling what is programmed to be a more substantive engineering preparatory course of study. Included in that curriculum will be learning to build, program, fly and control drones that are already being employed for use in agriculture and industry as well as in news, entertainment, sports, and travel fields.

Now, preparing to launch into its second year, Circleville High School robotics already has begun to reveal its potential while building a curriculum that reaches well beyond the traditional subjects and well into what will likely unfold in the future.  A scholarship for a student excelling in robotics and intending to pursue a degree in engineering is under consideration.  And ideas are already framed about how to improve the school’s team success next year at the National Robotics Challenge.

It’s a success story about a school, its students and a community plugged-in and wired for what comes next.  It should be fun and inspiring to watch it fly.