Easthampton middle school students celebrate arrival of new classroom robots

Last modified: Monday, January 27, 2014
EASTHAMPTON — For the past few months, science classes at White Brook Middle School have been “a lot more fun,” says seventh grader Joseph Brough.

“A lot more technical,” agrees his classmate, Jadyn Cintron.

The reason is a fleet of new schoolmates: eight small Romo robots purchased through a bake sale and donation drive the 90 students in the seventh grade Blue Team launched last fall.

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Teachers, students and staff lined the middle school hallways for a celebratory robot parade last week, watching as members of the Blue Team passed by with a banner and the school band played “March to Castle Rock.”

Finally, the robots came into view, whizzing along on their 4.5 inch wheelbases with their student programmers close behind.

There were smiles and high fives as the robots — which are essentially mobile ports for the iPhones and iPods that power them — zigged and zagged through the hallways. A representative of Romotive, the California company that produces the devices, followed along, capturing the event on film.

White Brook science teacher Jan de Ubl led the drive to bring the robots to White Brook. After seeing a promotional video in November, she and the students in the Blue Team began raising funds to purchase a Romo and an accompanying iPod for science classes.

Each Romo costs about $150 and comes with suggested programming “missions” and apps for the smartphones that act as the robots’ brains.

To their surprise, the team ended up raising enough money to buy eight Romos at a discounted price of $800 and four iPod touches for about $200 each — enough for all four seventh grade science classes at the middle school.

“It’s been a very energizing process,” said White Brook Principal Meredith Balise, as she watched students lining up for Thursday’s parade. “It was wonderful to see how many kids and families got involved.”

De Ubl said she’s looking forward to seeing how students will use the new robots, which can be remotely controlled with a computer, tablet or smartphone.

“What I appreciate about this device is it’s very personal,” said de Ubl, who is in her eighth year of teaching at White Brook. “The programming is accessible and students can determine how far they want to go with it.”

Her seventh graders say the robots are already having an impact in the classroom.

“They’re cool,’ said Jailyn Dube. “You can play with them and they come with missions.”

“It’s easy to control but the missions are not that easy,” said classmate Kunden Chumego. “I hope we can use it to help with academics.”

On parade day, students shared some of the ways they’ve already learned to use the robots with Jimmy Collins, Romotive’s marketing director.

Collins, who had flown in for the day from San Francisco, said he was most impressed by the “Romo Olympics” the seventh graders created, where robots were programmed to play soccer and follow obstacle courses in the gym.

The Blue Team plans to expand on that idea by reaching out to students in countries native to athletes in the upcoming Winter Olympics, de Ubl said. Romotive will donate a robot to a class chosen by the Easthampton middle schoolers so they can share ideas about using the devices.

On that score, Collins said White Brook is a standout among schools he has visited.

“This is the coolest school I’ve ever been to,” he told students and teachers gathered in the auditorium before the parade. “I can’t tell you how thrilled I am by how you’ve taken this on.”

Collins said his company — which launched Romo less than two years ago as an online Kickstarter campaign — is looking for ways to illustrate how the devices can help boost learning in science, technology, math and engineering.

“This is a brilliant test case for us,” he said, of the work underway in de Ubl’s classes.

In addition, Collins announced that a video submitted by White Brook seventh-grader Victoria Drejsa had won third place in the company’s national “Romo Challenge.” Her video, showing the robot talking and dancing, earned Dresja her own Romo and a chance to visit company headquarters on the west coast.

In de Ubl’s classroom, where she was enjoing some post-parade Romo cookies her teacher had baked, Drejsa said she plans to share her new device with her younger brother, Mark, 5.

“He kept saying, ‘I want to play with the Romo’ all through the video,” she explained. “So now I will let him play with it.”

Drejsa said her father, Richard, who works as a software programmer for the Pearson education publishing company, helped inspire her interest in technology.

“The thing I like best about Romo is that it’s a piece of technology that can help you learn programming,” she added. “I hope we get to take these to the high school.”

De Ubl said that decision will be left up to the Blue Team students who raised funds for the robots.

“Each class will come to a consensus about what to do with its Romo,” she said. “They could take it with them to the high school, leave it here for other students or they could raffle it” and use the funds for other school initiatives.

Seventh-grader Brough already has ideas for how his classmates could use their robot in high school.

“They could carry our diplomas out for us when we graduate,” he said, with a smile.