SALT LAKE CITY — A group of 16 fourth, fifth and sixth graders ditched their school desks at Woodrow Wilson Elementary on Thursday, embarking instead on a robot-building mission at Amazon’s Salt Lake City fulfillment center.
“Who can tell me what a robot does?” Amazon representative Tim Choate asked the group as they settled into a classroom at the facility after a tour of the primarily robot-operated shipping center.
“The robot arm, it takes the boxes and sorts (them), like this box is going to Wyoming, this box is going to Colorado, and it puts them in different spots to let you guys know that this one is supposed to go here,” responded 11-year-old Brayden Fellows.
The students are members of the school’s after-hours Lego and robotics league, which teaches them to apply STEM concepts while building and programming Lego robots.
The elementary school is one of 100 schools in the nation, and so far the only one in Utah, to receive a $10,000 grant for computer science education as part of Amazon’s Future Engineer program.
School Principal Christine Christensen said robotics teaches her students problem-solving.
“It’s something that goes across all content areas,” she said, explaining that it teaches them to have “some perseverance and some grit” because “they can try something and if it doesn’t work, they go back to the drawing board and try it again.”
That is exactly what students from the group did on Thursday. Split into teams, they worked together to build a remote-controlled model car.
Amazon technicians watched and mostly prompted the students with questions rather than instructions on how to build the models.
“One of the rules of Lego league is that the kids do it themselves,” according to the elementary’s school’s tech specialist, Sheri Harris. “I’ll teach them and then if they want to know something special, I’ll point them in the right direction and say ‘Here, learn it.’”
Every January, members of the elementary’s Lego league program participate in a Canyons School District tournament, competing with 20 other teams for a chance to go on to the state championship.
Harris noted that when the school first started the program, it had two students participating, but said it has since grown in popularity and now has a waiting list.
“We are really excited as a facility to welcome them here so they can see how STEM education is utilized in the real world,” Amazon’s Salt Lake operations manager, Alex Higbee.
“As a company, we are interested in developing the neighborhoods and communities that we live in, and we know that the students of today are going to be the employees of tomorrow,” Higbee said.
Student Mary Ibbit said the experience has taught her that “it takes a long time to build a robot.” Her favorite part of the day was a tour of the facility, which she described as “loud” and “pretty cool” because “you get to see if you work here how it’s going to work.”