A hushed sense of excitement could be felt as nervous students dressed in their best professional attire set to pitch projects to their teachers and fellow classmates.
These were no ordinary classroom presentations and the teens presenting them have the distinction of being the first class of Milan 12th-grade students to navigate their way through the school year in the new Milan Center for Innovative Studies.
The four-person teams of students were tasked with “Making the Disabled Abled” by researching, designing, building, programming and marketing a robot to showcase with poster boards, demos and presentations at an event Feb. 20 at the MCIS.
All Milan 12th-grade students took part in the activity.
Their projects had names like “Honey-Badger Bot” and “Babo Bo,” each built with the same basic kit of robot parts but all with a different take on improving the life of someone with a disability.
Before starting the project, students were surveyed and assigned to teams based on their interests, according to MCIS director Kevin Upton.
Each team had an appointed student engineer to build the robot, a software engineer to pro-gram the robot, and a marketing and sales team to promote the robot.
He explained that people with this condition “can move their limbs but their hands can’t grasp anything.”
“They can’t pick up food, they can’t pick up drinks and can’t feed themselves and that’s where our robot comes in.”
Kaufman and teammates Jordan Collins and Heidi Susack demonstrated how they programmed their robot Super Feedy to pick up a bottle.
Team members said programming was one of the more difficult aspects of the projects.
As many students at the event noted, their projects and the time they have spent in the MCIS hasn’t been free from pitfalls and challenges, but all students interviewed agreed they had learned important lessons about collaboration, flexibility and learning how to get things accomplished, even amidst challenges.
Upton said students have made great strides since the beginning of the school year and said he was impressed to see how the teams had come together and the students had learned important skills.
“I can really see how far the students have come from September to now with their technical abilities,” he said, as he described how the 12th-grade students have adapted to the project-based learning environment of the MCIS.
Milan 12th-grade students spend half their school day in the MCIS every day.
The students have created a variety of projects over the course of the year. This latest robot project was started about a month ago.
When snow days interrupted work days and technology woes brought programming to a standstill, the students said, they were discouraged and frustrated but they learned to adjust and adapt, finding creative ways to overcome the difficulties.
Even the showcase event was not free of technical glitches, as students handled everything from malfunctioning robots to sharing battery packs among groups.
“You learn to plan for the unexpected,” said Kaufman, who waited patiently for the return of his team’s power pack so the team could demonstrate the Superfeedy.
The students also talked about the frustration of having to work with people with different strengths and weaknesses and having to bring organization to the sometimes chaotic atmosphere of a collaborative work environment.
Morgan Griffis, who said she is usually comfortable taking the lead on projects, said she got more of an understanding about how other people work.
Griffis and teammates Jacob Mayer, Sydney Hajduk and Richard Gonzales designed their robot to help a person with cerebral palsy.
Susack said in spite of any project challenges, she liked the more hands-on approach to learning of the MCIS. Having struggled before in the more traditional classroom setting, she said, she improved her grades tremendously through classes in the MCIS.
Upton said the teachers in the MCIS are learning right alongside the students, as they gauge what’s working and what’s not working. He said they would like projects to eventually become more student-initiated.
To familiarize future 12th-grade students with the MCIS, Upton said, 11th-grade students were invited to attend the robot trade show and will be asked to complete a small MCIS project near the end of the school year.
“We want to integrate the juniors into the space, so they can get an idea of how it works,” he said.
About 70 current 12th-graders will be heading out of the MCIS this spring to complete internships, while about 120 to 130 students will remain in the wing and do projects as they complete their senior year.
As for next year and beyond, Upton was optimistic about the MCIS and its role in preparing students for life beyond high school.
“I see a lot of growth and we’re going to continue to step it up to the next level and get better and better from year to year,” he said. “We’ve laid a solid foundation for the years to come,”
Upton said the curriculum within the MCIS will help students become “career and college ready.”
This inaugural group of 12th-graders is well on their way to gaining the skills necessary to get along in the real world, he said, as he commented on how much they had already learned.
Presenters got a taste of getting reviewed by their peers. The 11th-graders attending the event Feb. 20 got the chance to vote on the best logos, display boards and most professionally dressed students.
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