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Robots cruise into Crenshaw curriculum


Joy Bryson, Alonna Gilmore and Jasmine Adway work on a Vex robot. Related: AUDIO SLIDESHOW
Three teenage girls at Crenshaw High School huddle around a computer wired to a Vex robot, a little semi-autonomous car with front and back bumpers that help it sense when it has run into an obstacle. They’re trying to get a program that they wrote downloaded into the robot so it will know to reverse direction when that happens.

Jasmine Adway reads on-screen notifications aloud while Joy Bryson sits next to her reading from the instruction manual. Alonna Gilmore stands by, the three of them chattering back and forth as they try to make the transfer work.

When the robot finally comes to life, its wheels spin and squeal like a distressed pig. But class ends before they can test to see if the program is running properly. The group of boys who occupied this work station earlier took too long getting their robot to work, and the girls needle them about it.

For the past three years, Crenshaw has offered students the opportunity to build robots as part of an after-school program. This year that club activity officially became a part of the general curriculum. At the same time, other students are learning how to fly airplanes and even build bridges, and all these high-tech programs have sprung up in a school that failed to make adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act every year since the law was passed in 2001.

The faculty last year voted overwhelmingly to invite the help of the Greater Crenshaw Educational Partnership, a non-profit corporation led by the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, with collaboration from the Los Angeles Urban League and the Tom and Ethel Bradley Foundation. Among the reforms so far at the school is the introduction of small learning communities, or SLCs, which are mini-schools with curriculum aligned to general fields of study. The robotics and aviation classes are part of an SLC called STEMM, which stands for science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine. But the seeds for these classes were sown long before the reform partnership came to Crenshaw.

Realizing a vision, one piece at a time

As Los Angeles Unified schools have axed shop classes over the years, the “geeky kids” have found they don’t have a place to fit in on campus, says Urban Reyes, who oversees the school’s student data systems and helps out with nearly everything else technology-oriented at Crenshaw.

“All the shop classes have gone, so what did we do with the guy who loved racecars, or loved to tinker, or was just brilliant mathematically with programming?” Reyes says, standing amid trophies and retired robots in an upstairs computer lab at the high school.

Reyes says he and a few other teachers came up with the idea of carving out a special niche for Crenshaw to attract such students, so that the school would be as known for engineering as, say, the University of Southern California is for football.

That effort began four years ago, and since then realizing the vision has come piece by piece. The first step, Reyes said, was to partner with Mathematics Engineering Science Achievement, or MESA, an organization that seeks to help students from underperforming populations in particular prepare for college and to pursue math- and science-based degrees.

The robotics club came the following year. Reyes says he was encouraged by a friend to enter a team into an annual competition hosted by the organization For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, or FIRST. Reyes helped start the after-school program, recruited students to participate, and even served as the team’s coach.

The FIRST Robotics Competition challenges high school students around the world to build a robot in six weeks and then pit it against robots built by other teams in a series of games, the rules of which remain secret until the first day of the build season. Though Crenshaw didn’t win the overall competition that first year, they did receive the 2005 California Rookie Inspiration Award, and the program has continued ever since.

With the MESA partnership and the robotics club up and running, the next step was to create an aerospace education course. Once again, what would eventually become a full-fledged class started as an after-school program, only this time students were learning about the principles of aviation and taking airplanes for a spin in Microsoft’s Flight Simulator using realistic yokes and pedals.

The initial goal was simply to pique students’ interest in flying, Reyes says. With that goal achieved, he began asking around to find outside partners to help with the class, but it was by chance that he managed to connect with Thomas Wathen, who heads the eponymous non-profit corporation that owns Flabob Airport in Riverside and seeks to spread aviation education—in particular to at-risk youth.

Reyes said he was standing in line at Albertsons waiting for chicken to feed his robotics club students when he struck up a conversation with the man next to him, who turned out to be another teacher.

“We’re just talking about, you know, how long the line was, how good the chicken was, and one conversation led to the next, and we hit it off,” Reyes says.

The teacher directed Reyes to the Experimental Aircraft Association and helped to put him in touch with Thomas Wathen. According to Reyes, Wathen agreed to give Crenshaw $13,000 for student tuition money for AeroScholars, an online EAA course that offers college credits. With that, a new class was born.

Getting off the ground

Students in the Aero Education class complete assignments through the AeroScholars Web site, learning about everything from thrust to how to read an instrument panel.

Gerard Lynch teaches the class this year. Lynch, who doesn’t himself have a pilot’s license, says he taught math in Africa through the Peace Corps before spending seven years in the telecommunications industry. But with an academic background in aerospace and civil engineering, he says he is well-versed in the principles of flight.

The class is structured in three phases. In the first phase, students spend time learning aerodynamic theory directly from the teacher. Lynch says he had his students build model gliders to exploit the principles of flight they were learning about in class. In the second phase, students continue to develop their theoretical background, learning the types of air space, the history of aviation, and the careers available in the industry. Finally, they strap into the flight simulators for a series of 20 lessons led by a virtual flight instructor. And that’s just the first semester. Students who stick with the class through the end of the second semester will have accumulated enough knowledge to pass the written portion of a pilot’s exam, Lynch says.

According to data from the California Department of Education’s online database of schools, Crenshaw High recently surpassed the district and state in terms of student-to-computer ratio (at least in part because the number of students has dropped by a third in the same period). But starting the Aero Ed class has nevertheless been a challenge, because it calls for even more computers, the special simulator yokes and pedals, and better equipment and facilities. The flight lab is currently located in an old closed-network television studio with bad wiring in the main building. Just days before the students were to take their first stab at the flight simulators, an electrical short fried an outlet, forcing the class to delay its first lesson. Reyes worked with facilities staff to fix the wiring, but they still had to work with outdated technology and a lack of computers. Lynch says they came up with a temporary alternative by borrowing a few extra laptops from another SLC, and a new shipment of yokes and pedals arrived shortly thereafter.

“We’re like Marines. We have to adapt and improvise,” Lynch says.

Funding gets scarce

None of these programs come cheap, either. For the FIRST Robotics Competition, for instance, teams must pay $6,000 for equipment and entry. The Annenberg Foundation agreed to donate the money that first year, and it was help that was much needed.

More than 3,000 students crowded the halls at Crenshaw High the year Reyes and other teachers began implementing their plan, according to the education department data. Students had fewer computers to share among them than the average school at both district and state levels. And nearly half the students were eligible to receive free or reduced-price meals, a rough indicator of a population’s social economic status.

Yet the club was popular enough to keep students coming back, and the Annenberg Foundation donated $6,000 for a second year. By the third year, however, the foundation withdrew support, and Reyes had to scrounge for funds while students resorted to cannibalizing parts from the previous year’s robot.

Urban Reyes works with UCLA student volunteers after school.
“One of the biggest problems for us is what I refer to as the M-and-M syndrome: money and mentoring,” he says.

The winning robot at FIRST last year came from Hermosa Beach, which sits right near a strip of aerospace companies, including Northrop Grumman and Boeing. Crenshaw, by comparison, is surrounded by grocery stores, fast food joints and nail shops, Reyes says.

“We were using chewing gum, yarn, old parts, bungee cords. Meanwhile, the competition was operating with titanium,” he says. “So you can see where we need mentors and resources to take us to the next level.”

Reyes says he managed to get $2,000 each from the Raytheon Black Employees Network and the Los Angeles Urban League. The rest they earned through car washes and other fundraisers. The mentoring has come from undergraduate volunteers from the local collegiate chapter of the National Society for Black Engineers at the University of California in Los Angeles.

Playing with robots is better than sewing

When the local MESA program office, housed at UCLA, held its first competition of the year recently, three Crenshaw freshmen won $300 each for their design of a wind-powered car. Since no other high schools in the area entered the contest, the three boys only had to compete against their schoolmates. All of the participants were in the robotics class.

As with Aero Ed, the class is still brand-new, and because there aren’t many, if any, robotics textbooks written at a high school level, the kits are the students’ sole course materials, Reyes says. Each kit everything needed to build a Vex robot. But while Reyes’ goal is to have one kit per student, in reality three to four students must share. That’s where MESA comes in.

One of the MESA projects teaches students how to design and build bridges. The students use computers to work on the design but ultimately get to build a real, wooden bridge.

Such projects get folded directly into the robotics class, in part because the limited resources mean not all students can be working on a robot at once, but also because the projects help the students to develop the skills they need to build a successful robot in the spring, says Punjatorn Chanudomchok, the robotics teacher.

With the three programs running and even supporting each other, all of the pieces of that vision four years ago have so far fallen into place. The final phase, Reyes says, will be to develop a computer-aided design class to show students how to take an idea from concept to reality.

Yet the future of the program remains uncertain. For one, the reform partnership now has control over the budget, and they have the overall health of the school to consider. Students at Crenshaw High were truant at a rate nearly seven times the district average last year. If the partnership wants to make adequate yearly progress, they’ll at least need to keep students in their seats, and the ultimate consequence of failure could be state takeover.

In that regard, Reyes’ case rests on the strength of the robotics program, which has only gotten more popular each year. And three of the five top contenders for valedictorian this year were members of the robotics team last year, he says.

Alonna Gilmore, the student who stayed after school to hang out at Mr. Chanudomchok’s class, seems satisfied.

Punjatorn Chanudomchok brings UCLA volunteers up to speed so they can help.
“It’s really cool, the stuff you learn. You learn how to program robots,” Gilmore says. “It’s like being a kid again.”

Not all students will put in extra time, but nearly every student in the class was given a chance to transfer out if they didn’t like it, Chanudomchok says, adding that some students may carry an attitude and be too preoccupied with other things to show interest in something school-related.

But “I think if it was this or sewing or computers, they’d probably stay here,” he says.

Either way, these students will have their work cut out for them starting in February, when the FIRST Robotics Competition officially kicks off.

As for the Aero Ed students, they’ll be heading to Flabob Airport in February, where each one will not just sit at the controls next to an experienced pilot, but will get to grab the yoke—and fly.