Diversity & Inclusion

This West Philly school is the first in the district to bring robotics programming to all grades, including kindergarten

The students at the Andrew Hamilton School participated in their first LEGO League competition as part of the K-8 school's unique robotics and digital literacy programming.

Mark Paikoff with some of his students. (Photo by Sarah Huffman)
Andrew Hamilton School students know: Of course LEGOs can be used for learning.

Excited kids and teachers were gathered around wooden LEGO tables during Hamilton’s FIRST LEGO League competition when Technical.ly visited last Wednesday. Twelve teams of students in grades six and seven competed against each other while 12 teams of third and fourth graders constructed displays, showing off what they learned about robotics over the last few months.

Mark Paikoff, digital literacy teacher at Hamilton, said the West Philly school is unique because it’s the first in the School District of Philadelphia to teach robotics in kindergarten through eighth grade via the LEGO robotics unit coordinated with the school’s digital literacy curriculum. The program started at the beginning of this school year, and this competition was a culmination of what the students had learned so far.

“All of the learning that goes on in digital literacy from K to eight in the school district curriculum is given to the students as well as a robotics activity and building activity and learning activity,” Paikoff said. “We’re working on becoming a project-based learning school and this is really the first step.”

The structures on the tables each had a mission associated with it. The students pre-wrote code to program a LEGO Spike Prime robot so that when they press “go,” the robot is programmed to execute certain tasks.

“The students have pre-programmed [the robots] to drive across the field to one of those models, interact with it in some way, push this, pull that, and then return back to the home space,” said Michael Johnson, event director for the Philadelphia Robotics Coalition. “And so they can run the program and run however many missions they want in the two-and-a-half-minute period.”

Paikoff said the school reached out to the Coalition and the district to implement the LEGO robotics unit, and both offered support to get this first year going. Every student in the school will get a chance to participate at some point in the school year: The programming happens during the school day, with some classes participating in the first and second semesters, and the rest of the classes will participate in the third and fourth semesters.

Paikoff is with the students day to day teaching them about robotics, whereas the Coalition offers support by providing materials and helping to organize events like the LEGO competition. As 2022 is Paikoff’s first year running such a program, Johnson said he was impressed with the digital literacy teacher’s willingness to jump right in and manages dozens of teams throughout all the grades at Hamilton.

“We’re piloting this in a way for the school district to connect our digital literacy with the real skills that students are going to need going forward,” Paikoff said. “The jobs they have obviously don’t exist yet. So we want them to gather the skills of teamwork and problem solving, along with the technical aspects of putting a robot together.”

A lego robot

One of the LEGO robots. (Photo by Sarah Huffman)

Each year, or “season,” the internationally facing FIRST LEGO League features a theme. This year’s theme is “SUPERPOWERED,” so Hamilton students are also working on a project to propose an innovative solution to an energy problem. They did not present the innovation project at Wednesday’s competition, but following a judging portion where students presented their bots, the teams who move on to the next stage of competition will be expected to. The top five teams will move on to the Philadelphia qualifier on Dec. 10 and 11 at Central High School, where they will compete against teams from all over the city.

Students standing around a Lego table

Students gathered around the LEGO table during one of the rounds. (Photo by Sarah Huffman)

Torrence Rothmiller, principal of Hamilton, said it was great to see the student working together, and that problem solving has been a highlight of the LEGO robotics unit and the competition.

Assistant Principal Devon Madison echoed that: “To see the passion and excitement in the kids’ eyes. When something doesn’t go according to plan you see real-life problem solving. They’re under the table, trying to fix things; somebody drops a piece and everybody in the team rushes together to work on something. And so to see authentic teamwork for the kids and passion is really something special.”

The Coalition’s mission is to get as many Philadelphia students as possible involved in robotics. Johnson said the fact that every student at Hamilton has the opportunity to try robotics is unique because in most schools, it’s an after-school program. That means the kids in those programs are kids who already know they’re interested in robotics.

A referee bending over the Lego table

One of the competition referees adjusts a LEGO structure.

Previous to Hamilton’s robotics program, the Coalition was supporting students in second through 12th grade, but Hamilton expands that range to kindergarten.

“Here, every student is getting that exposure,” Johnson said. “It’s hard to know that you want to do something if you’ve never had any exposure, and so this is that first taste. We hope that through that opportunity to give it a try, we get we get more kids interested.”

Piquing these students’ interest could have long-term effects, according to Johnson. If students become interested in robotics at a young age, they could go on to study computer science or engineering as they get older.

“Philadelphia is such a tech city, but so few of our public school graduates end up on that pipeline. A lot of the tech talent we have in Philadelphia comes in from elsewhere,” he said. “It doesn’t need to be that way. We’re hoping to inspire and prepare the next generation of Philadelphia STEM leaders right here in Philadelphia.”

Sarah Huffman is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.
Companies: School District of Philadelphia
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