Future STEM teachers look to inspire students with robotics club

The Just a Prototype robotics team members include: Back row (L-R) Jamie Burrows, Rachel Smith, Shala Nail, and Donetha Groover. Front row (L-R) David Shurley , FLN the robot, and Faculty Advisor Sandra Leiterman.

Sandra Leiterman, a math specialist in the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) Educational Center, created the first VEX University (VEXU) robotics team in the state of Arkansas. 

In VEX robotics, students design and build robots to compete in robotics competitions that change every year.

Prior to six years ago, Leiterman had no experience coaching robotics teams. Now, being a robocoach is practically second nature to her as she coaches the UA Little Rock team and two robotics teams at Mills High School. Last year, she also helped start robotics teams at two Little Rock elementary schools, Chicot and Jefferson.

“When I first started teaching, I was asked to start a robotics team when I had no experience,” Leiterman said. “Now I know a lot of high school robotics teams want to continue onto college competitions. As future teachers, there is a huge push for these students to provide STEM activities for their future students.”

While most robotics teams are staffed by engineering students, UA Little Rock’s squad, who dubbed themselves “Just a Prototype,” is made up of future math and science teachers looking to inspire their future students.

“There is such a demand right now for STEM in schools,” said Donetha Groover, a robotics team member and biology major. “We are all going to be teachers. We want to experience robotics and take it into the classroom ourselves.”

In addition to being on the robotics team, the students also give back by volunteering with local high school robotics programs and serving as judges at their competitions.

UA Little Rock team members include Groover, senior biology major from Lodi, California; Jamie Burrows, junior math major from Mabelvale, Arkansas; Robert Presswood, sophomore physics and math major from Lincoln, Illinois; Rachel Smith, senior math major from Lockesburg, Arkansas; Michael McKinnie, senior biology major from Cabot, Arkansas; Shala Nail, senior math major from Evening Shade, Arkansas; and David Shurley, physics major.

The REC Foundation awarded the team a materials grant that team members used to build their robot named FLN, which is pronounced Flynn and stands for Finished Last Night.

The humorous name refers to a highly stressful week when the team completely redesigned its robot and made last-minute adjustments the night before the competition.

“Four of us had judged a high school robotics competition in Monticello the weekend before our competition,” Burrows said. “We were really impressed by Bryant High School’s design and used an adaptation for our robot. That left us about four days to rebuild the robot before we left for the competition, and we had a few sleepless nights.”

Each year, VEX creates a unique game teams play during the robotics competitions. This year, they used their robots to play the game “Starstruck” on a 12-foot by 12-foot field. The object was to attain a higher score than the opposing team by placing stars and cubes in the scoring zones and hanging a robot on the hanging bar.

“FLN is unique because every other robot had a claw, yet FLN’s design is to collect the star in the basket and then shoot the star across the border,” Smith said.

After their first competition in Muskogee, Oklahoma, Just a Prototype members were invited to participate in the TEX VEXU tournament in Houston against teams from Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas in February.

Just a Prototype received the special Judges Award recognition.

“The judges loved the fact that the team is made up of future math and science teachers that joined the team in order to gain experience so they may one day start their own teams when they have teaching jobs,” Leiterman said.

For now, the team members are looking forward to April 21, when VEX will announce the new robotic game competition for the 2017-18 season. The students plan to create a second robotics team and are hoping to host a VEXU competition at UA Little Rock in the fall.

In the upper right photo, the “Just a Prototype” robotics team members include: Back row (L-R) Jamie Burrows, Rachel Smith, Shala Nail, and Donetha Groover. Front row (L-R) David Shurley , FLN the robot, and Faculty Advisor Sandra Leiterman. Photo by Lonnie Timmon III/UA Little Rock Communications. 

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