Child’s play builds tech know-how: ANESU summer program offers robotics and circuitry

STARKSBORO — Soon-to-be first grader Charlie Hill is building a LEGO bulldozer. It’s got a big rock in the bucket, a little LEGO guy on the back, and big wheels. Charlie is immensely proud of his creation. And he’s more-than-happily engrossed as he drives it back and forth along the floor and demonstrates repeatedly how the bucket goes up and down.
But this isn’t just any bulldozer, and Charlie’s not using just any playdough.
His bulldozer lugs a LEGO trailer on which rests a battery with two electric cables protruding. When Charlie smushes some wires into some playdough a green light on top of his rig into comes on — and Charlie’s smile gets even bigger.
Charlie’s not just playing (but don’t tell him that), he’s learning circuitry.
A fun exploration of robotics and circuitry is a new part of this summer’s Expanded Learning Program (ELP) at Robinson Elementary School in Starksboro, one of three sites in the Addison Northeast school district.
“Really, we’re looking into the future,” said ELP Director Mandy Chesley-Park. “These kids in 10 to 15 years — it’s a whole different job market.”
Technology and innovation is one of four “learning strands,” as Chesley-Park describes them, in the district’s summer offerings. Each weekday, 8 a.m. to noon, kids cycle through projects built around innovation and technology, language and culture, literacy and art, and wellness. In addition to Robinson, the program operates at Bristol Elementary and Beeman Elementary in New Haven.
Each site puts its own spin on things. Kids in New Haven have created a butterfly garden and are learning German and telling Grimm’s fairy tales. Kids in Bristol are juicing kale, learning Chinese and building dragons. Kids at Robinson are learning Swedish and holding a “Midsomer” dance around a maypole. All are hiking, playing soccer and swimming.
One hundred twenty-three children are enrolled overall. Families can sign up for weeklong increments. And the district’s philosophy, said Chesley-Park, is that families pay what they can of the advertised cost.
The new robotics and circuitry offering came about through the interest of New Haven resident Ron Yara. Yara and his wife, Mara Eaton, recently moved to here from California to be near family. Now retired, Yara worked 47 years in Silicon Valley, first as an engineer designing semiconductors, later as a venture capitalist. Yara and Eaton donated $15,000 to buy the toys/tools for the circuitry and robotics program.
Yara is a tech guy, but what’s really driving him is a desire to spark kids’ curiosity. He sees the fun tech toys that make up the program — the Squishy Circuits, LilyPad Sewable Electronics Kit, LEGO Mindstorms and WeDos — as just a way to “engage kids where they are.”
Yara’s commitment is such that he’s also volunteering in the robotics and circuitry room, spending hours on the floor, hanging out with kids.
For a rising seventh-grader who’s a self-proclaimed “future roboticist,” Yara gently asks questions, to help the boy figure out how to get his robot vehicle programmed to go faster while still accurately following the black track with its light censor.
“How do you speed it up?” asks Yara. “How do you improve the white reaction?”
For a girl in the youngest “Salamander” group (for those about to enter first or second grade), Yara simply sits nearby and helps her sew a felt-stuff doll, with no concern that she’s skipped the circuits and electronic-wire sewing thread that could make her creation light up.
Getting girls engaged is a big focus for the circuitry and robotics program.
Indeed, many girls across a morning’s worth of sessions gravitate to the sewing table. With the LilyPad kits, you can make small felt creations and using the kit’s parts and directions sew in batteries, LED lights, on/off switches, and the kind of control buttons that make holiday lights blink, race or just stay on.
One girl explains that she’s making a stuffed light-up heart to give to her mom. Another takes on a complicated nightlight hanging pennant.
Entering fifth-grader Louisa Painter is making an owl with green LED eyes. She confidently and effortlessly explains how it works.
“It’s like a stuffed animal that can glow and some parts can glow with this light. So you’re creating a circuit. You have, like, the battery pack and everything and that’s got the light switch to turn it on and off. This is the battery and this is the switch,” she says pointed out each part.
“You take a conductive string and you thread it, connecting it to the plus and negative ends of the LED lights. And if you turn this battery pack on and off, it will turn the lights on and off.”
While girls definitely love the sewing projects, plenty of girls play with the construction toys and tackle the upper grades’ robotics challenge. Entering sixth-grader Rosie Emmons happily puts together a LEGO gorilla she names “Pounder.” Once completed, battery included, he lopes along on his forearms. A team of entering sixth- and seventh-grade girls watch the track to see if they can program their robotic vehicle to go a little faster around a winding track.
Complications arise as there’s more than one robot pile-up, and another robot vehicle ends up just spinning round and round.
For boys and girls both, one of the most notable things about the robotics and circuitry explorations is that kids get so caught up they don’t want to stop.
One of the “Brown Bears” (entering fourth- and fifth-graders) is sifting through a box of gears, winches, shafts, sensors, bolts, blocks and wheels to make what he calls a “six-wheel four-wheeler.”
His concentration is so intense, he could be performing brain surgery.
“Time to pick up,” say the staff helping in the area.
The boy keeps making his creation, sorting through parts and pieces. He’s not ignoring the adults, but is “in the zone,” driven by the creation inside his head.
Chesley-Park says that eventually she’d like to see the summer’s explorations lead to a full-out robotics team for the middle school and high school students.
“Yeah, a robotics team — but that’s just a means to an end, or rather, a means to a future,” she said. “These kids need to be proficient in the language of the professional worlds that they’re going to be entering. Not just professional but very personal worlds. We need proficiency in the language of technology, the language of how the world is developing very quickly. And really all we can teach is innovation.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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