Teaching Math via Robotics

NapaLearns Fellows build innovative math program

Mario Piombo, Director, Innovation
Published on April 27, 2017

During the 2016–2017 school year students at American Canyon Middle and High School will be offered a new type of Math course: Integrated Math 1 with Computing and Robotics. This course was primarily born out of the efforts of two NapaLearns Fellows, Scott Marsden and Tammy Lee.

At the start of the 2015–2016 school year, Scott Marsden, a teacher at American Canyon High School, boldly decided to take the plunge and focus his digital media class on robotics. In previous years students had launched a robotics club and actively requested a robotics course be offered at American Canyon High School — they even went so far as to petition their former principal and the school board for it. Scott knew that it would be challenging to learn about coding and robotics, but he was inspired by his students and driven by his passion to see more girls and students of under represented-groups enter STEM careers.

Scott Marsden, American Canyon High School, NapaLearns Fellow

“Having my Master’s Degree in Educational Technology through the NapaLearns Fellows / Touro University Program was a seal of approval for me.” — Scott Marsden

It’s safe to say that most of the energy for robotics at American Canyon High School stemmed from students who had previously participated in Tammy Lee’s class at American Canyon Middle School. Tammy’s class is aimed at teaching students math concepts using an engaging robotics curriculum known as C-STEM.

Tammy was originally exposed to C-STEM in 2012 when she responded to an invitation from Napa Valley Unified School District’s Assistant Superintendent of Instruction, Elena Toscano, to attend attended a summer C-STEM workshop at UC Davis. C-STEM is a curriculum developed and launched by UC Davis that provides students with hands on experiences in math and computer science through computer programming, algorithmic design and robotics. Tammy immediately understood the benefits of this new approach to mathematics. She had always felt like she needed a new way to engage students in critical thinking and problem-based learning and, for her, robotics would become the ultimate tool to achieve this goal.

After attending the summer workshop in 2012 Tammy established an after-school robotics club at American Canyon Middle School, she then went on to offer a robotics elective for students. Within one year, her students were competing in robotics competitions and winning awards, all while learning about mathematics and coding.

“It makes me feel like I am really teaching and making math applicable. We want our students to know how to problem solve and apply math.” — Tammy Lee

In 2014, Tammy and her former students approached Scott about hosting a club which led to his digital media with robotics elective being offered in 2015. Over the years Scott and Tammy have cultivated an impressive community of students interested in computer science and robotics. What makes them most proud is when students of minority groups and girls talk about their desire to enter STEM careers, they really are addressing the issue of closing the gender gap and achievement gap using CSTEM. Parents are also seeing the profound changes this will have on student’s futures.

Tammy and Scott are excited about the work they’ve done. They have built a track to jobs that haven’t even been invented yet. “Some parents don’t want their students to become doctors or lawyers, they are constantly telling us, ‘we want our kids to be inventors and build the next electric car or become Silicon Valley software engineers,” said Tammy.

“It’s rewarding to see my daughter involved in the program and it’s nice that we can tell our girls that they can strive for more.” — Cecile, ACMS Parent

Tammy Lee, American Canyon Middle School, with Robotics Club Members

Scott and Tammy’s classes and clubs have won many awards, including placing first in the 2015 State C-STEM competition (C-STEM Day) and being featured at the 2016 CUE Conference in Palm Springs. To Scott and Tammy, these awards and accomplishments are validation that they are on the right track with their program.

A New Kind of Math Course

The C-STEM program is now being implemented in both American Canyon Middle and High school as an A-G approved Math 1 Course. The new Math 1 course, which was just recently adopted by the Napa Valley Unified School District, integrates district adopted, common-core aligned curriculum and the C-STEM robotics program to provide students with a hands-on approach to learning math concepts. This means that not only will students learn math by coding, they’ll also receive math credit in the process.

“These courses require students to be highly engaged in building a product, solving a problem, working as a team and applying the math and programming skills they are learning in class. These skills align perfectly with our vision for a 21st century education that prepares our students for careers of the future.” — Elena Toscano, Napa Valley Unified School District

The CSTEM curriculum has been implemented in schools and districts across the state and was completely designed and constructed by teachers. Tammy Lee is proud to have created all of the robotics activities for the Math 1 curriculum. “I’m excited to actually be implementing and teaching what I wrote.”

Student configuring LinkBot at American Canyon Middle School. Photo: Mario Piombo

Students are eager to take the new Math 1 course offered at their schools.

“It will be challenging because it is new, but it will be fun because it’s a great way to visualize and understand math.” — Colin, 7th Grade Student

NapaLearns is proud of the work done by Scott and Tammy. We look forward to seeing where they go next and wish them and their teams the best of luck at C-STEM Day 2016!

NapaLearns Fellows Program

The NapaLearns Fellows Program was developed in 2011 in partnership with Touro University as a vehicle to accelerate the adoption of innovative teaching and learning in Napa County classrooms. While enrolled in the program, NapaLearns Fellows earn their Master’s degree in Innovative Learning and become proficient in the tools and strategies that enable rigorous, authentic and engaging 21st century learning.