FIRST Things First: Where Our Robotics Program Begins

By Mitch McDonald, Junior Robotics Coach and Upper School Math Teacher

Many of our lifelong passions are spurred when we are young, when our imagination runs wild with all the possibilities that lie before us.  Childlike wonder injects a thirst for knowledge that cannot be underestimated. This year’s FIRST Lego League (FLL) competition plays right into the hand of that wonder and amazement. The theme, Into Orbit, challenges students to provide food to astronauts, maneuver rovers, and extract pieces of the moon’s core. After constructing, satellites, equipment, and our miniature sized astronauts, our team will attempt 15 challenges that work all problem solving centers of the brain. We hope to showcase our skills at local robotics exhibitions in the area this spring.

Our season consists of two phases, the build season and our challenge season. In our build season our team well...builds. Working together to ensure accuracy and to save time, our team constructs each apparatus that we will need in order to attempt the challenges to come. During this process each member’s patience is tested as we get further into this part of the season. The fun of building starts to die down and the desire to start the challenges burns greater. As the build season comes to a close, we put down the proverbial hammer and nails and begin to work with Lego Mindstorms and flex our programming muscles.

In the challenge season, we get to work on the missions at hand. Students will work together in teams to attempt these challenges to obtain the maximum point values possible. There are penalties for having to pick up and manually move your robot and for missing drop zones. Each challenge will reward great work but also allow for partial credit if they make minor mistakes. This teaches them a valuable lesson that you need to focus on the mission at hand and revise and improve strategies later to be more successful in the future. That being said, in the real world if a rover were to collect and transmit important data, only to explode shortly thereafter, it still accomplished the mission. These interesting facts lead us to debates on what is critical to the mission, how to safely ensure the rovers return, and how to program said robot.

While FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) team, Carriagetown Robotics, readies themselves for what is certain to be another exciting season, we are laying the foundation for the program for years to come with our outstanding Junior Robotics members. The excitement and joy they bring to our meetings each week inspires me that here at Sparhawk we are accomplishing our mission. At our Upper School the credo (Mission Statement) is what drives our community every day. The first line reads, “Sparhawk Students are willing to learn”. While that is a worthy goal, true mastery and happiness comes when that learning becomes fun, encrusted with passion, and the true childlike wonder that our team has. Keep an eye out for a chance to see our team in action this spring!

  • first robotics
  • FRC
  • lego league
  • robotics

Hands & Minds-On  Applying Knowledge to Real Life

By Diane Hichborn, Middle School Teacher & Yvonne Domings, Director of Sparhawk Upper School

At Sparhawk Middle School, “minds-on” learning turns to Project-based Learning opportunities whenever possible. Sparhawk Middle School students apply their knowledge of this year’s science curriculum; forces and motion, towards two project-based learning units this year so far; the Science of Rocketry and Data Arcade Sportslab.

During class time our young scientists learn about action and reaction forces, thrust, trajectory, and experimenting with velocity and gravity by building and shooting off air-propelled paper rockets. They were able to experiment with fin design and placement to see how it affects the rocket’s flight path. Our second project based learning venture is the Data Arcade Sportslab Challenge, which we will continue to work on until mid January.

In fact, while the High School students are delving into their annual Winterim Session during January, middle school students will be spending their days taking deep dives into various academic areas. In these PBLs, they will be exploring Castles, Catapults, and Cathedrals, exploring a variety of cultures and romance languages, learning about geometry and finishing their design of a new Parkour shoe. Below are the descriptions of the January PBL courses for Middle School this year:

Castles, Catapults, and Cathedrals

Driving question: What effective architectural designs protect castles from a siege? Using that knowledge, can we build a better catapult to effectively siege a castle?

Our Language Arts and History classes will be joining thematic forces in this unit where students are immersed in the dark, yet exciting days of the Middle Ages with knights in shining armor, dragons, catapults flinging Greek fire into the air towards enemy castles and the ominous Gothic cathedrals that took center stage in the medieval townscape. Students will learn about the prominent characteristics and driving forces behind the architecture the Middle Ages. They will select a castle or cathedral to research its design and history. Each student will then create an historic fiction short story where they take on the role of themselves living in the feudal system. The castle or cathedral that they researched will be a major part of the setting for their story in which they will incorporate descriptive details from their research. Models and “stained glass” windows will be constructed to help illustrate each project. This unit will culminate with building catapults, learning how a castle siege works, and then actually using our catapults to siege a ‘castle’.

Geometry is Just Plane Fun

Driving question: How can we use geometry useful to design a Medeival castle or cathedral?

Sir Cumference and Lady Di Ameter will take our young mathematicians on a journey to geometry for the month of January. Geometry is all about shapes and their properties. In this unit, we will have fun learning about plane geometry; flat shapes, lines, and angles, as well as solid geometry, which is about three- dimensional objects like cubes, prisms, and cylinders. Students will become familiar with the terminology of many angles and shapes, plot coordinates on the coordinate plane and learn how the world around us is greatly driven by geometry: shapes, scale, patterns, parallel line, perpendicular lines, and angles. In combination with what they learn in the Castles, Catapults and Cathedrals PBL above, students will learn to use architectural tools to design and draw the plans of their own castles and cathedrals.

Data Arcade Sportslab Challenge:

Driving question: Is it possible to create a new and improved parkour shoe?

In January, students will complete the Data Arcade Sportslab Challenge that they have started in science in the fall. Data Arcade Sportslab Challenge project is (a National Science Foundation funded research project designed by TERC) is a game-based design challenge. Students do work online (learning about the sport) and hands-on in the classroom (design, testing, etc.). They work on teams to collaborate, plan and track their progress through the on-line tool as they collect data, engage in design activities, and pitch deliverables (design of a new shoe). Students also watch and interview real athletes in action.

Students use what they are learning in the Forces and Motion unit of our science program. They test the coefficient of friction on many sneaker outsoles and test how the force of jumping affects the design of the sneaker’s midsole. After interviewing each other, teams work together to build models of sneakers that enhance the shoelace tying experience. Last year, one team used biomimicry to do away with the laces using an octopus-like strap that secured the sneaker with suction cups.  Through the process, each student creates their own deliverables and then joins forces collaboratively in designing a final product that best illustrates their team’s exploration of the anatomy of sporting footwear.

A Little Mix of Spain and France

Driving question: How are food, language and culture interconnected in Spain and France?

Students will shift from learning Mandarin for the month of January to getting a taste of both Spanish and French languages and food. Two mini classes will allow our middle-schoolers the exploration of foods and language in Spain or France. Students will begin by independently researching traditional foods. Then they will come together to share their findings and choose the foods that they’re going to prepare as a class. The class’ meal will be comprised of key elements such as an appetizer, salad, main course and dessert. Next, they will break into small groups, and each group will have a target-language recipe corresponding to their particular dish to follow. After the final meal, students will journal and describe the foods, compare and contrast the foods and cultures and discuss which types of food and preparation they enjoyed.  

  • experiential education
  • middle school
  • PBL
  • Project Based LEarning

Outdoor Education & Its Importance in the LEAP Program

by Mitch McDonald, Upper School Math Teacher, LEAP Study Skills/ Outdoor Ed 

As our 8th grade LEAP students prepare to transition to the 9th grade, there are many important skills they must work to improve and build upon. At Sparhawk we approach this transition from variety of aspects, both inside the classroom and out. Perhaps one of our most important out of the classroom experiences is our outdoor education program. On Mondays and Wednesdays the 8th grade works on projects of their own choosing outside on our campus. This year, students chose to work on clearing out trails behind the school so our community could explore and enjoy more of our campus. Other students are working to build grass huts and to create a low ropes team building course out in the woods behind Sparhawk.

While students enjoy the opportunity to get some fresh air, they are learning to be responsible, work as a team, and take ownership of their community to become better humans. Learning to use tools such as cutters and a bow saw safely, students can make real progress in their projects and see their hard work pay off. There is a sense of teamwork when we venture out together in sometimes not ideal weather conditions. 8th grade LEAP student Richard Lally said it best when asked what he thought the goal of outdoor education was when he said,” Going outside gives us a chance to learn hands on and do things school normally wouldn’t let us do.” In a Google centric world, the chance to release from the bind of technology to explore the outdoors gives students a different way to express themselves and practice 21st century skills that in some places have gone by the wayside.

The responsibility piece of outdoor education is a large portion of our focus. Sending detailed plans of their project to their teacher, discussing plans respectfully with classmates, and coming to class prepared are key aspects of being ready to learn in Outdoor Education.  John Lubbock once said, “Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters, and teach of us more than we can ever learn from books.” We at Sparhawk believe that spurring the curiosity that lies within each of our students is our mission and will serve our students well as they take the LEAP into the 9th grade and beyond.

  • 21st Century Skills
  • Hands-on
  • LEAP
  • outdoor education

Life Long Learning

by Diane Hichborn, Middle School Teacher

Recently, I had the wonderful opportunity to sit in on our headmaster, Louise Stilphen’s ballroom dance class and watch in amazement as she moved with ease across the floor in a lovely bejeweled gown. She followed the steps of the instructor, collaborated with other dancers, and practiced her moves. Two days earlier, Louise was showing pictures of her competition dress to me and two of my young impressionable students. She told of how she used to do ballet and was now learning ballroom dancing. I could see by the expression in her face and the excitement in her voice what this new learning experience meant to her.

Life long learning is what we as good humans need to accomplish for both personal and professional development. We do this by creating and maintaining a positive attitude and setting goals towards each learning experience. We are all born with natural curiosities and as a teacher at Sparhawk School, I find that my own curiosities get me excited to explore new topics to share with my students. I am a designer, but I have never thought about designing sneakers, for a sport called; Parkour. Non the less, last year I found myself learning the anatomy of sneaker design along side my group of eager middle schoolers. It was a fantastic project-base learning opportunity with a great ending. Along the journey students learned math and science skills by using them in a real life application. Projects like this afford enriching moments for students to experience the love to learn more.

It is part of our teaching at Sparhawk to make certain that when students move on to the next level, they don’t see an end to the old, but take ownership and leadership of what they have achieved and gain the confidence towards achieving new tasks. While I watched Louise that night at the dance studio, I could see that she had the the spirit of adventure and the willingness to learn.