Our group involves eight families, seventeen kids from ages five through thirteen, and usually a few younger siblings creating quite the interesting dynamic for a robotics setting. There are older kids that are experienced in building and programming, younger kids that just want to play with Legos, and everything in between. The variety means that kids are often learning from each other and also that the club’s parent-leaders are kept on their toes making sure resources are available for a wide range of needs. As we’ve gone along, it’s become apparent that the more we keep all the kids busy doing what interests them, at their level, the easier it is to make a good working environment, as opposed to chaos. We could have started out the club requiring a certain age or grade level but now we can see that involving younger siblings has created enthusiasm for robotics and has fostered a natural mentoring system. And lucky for us, we also have 8 involved and helpful parents.
Our club is a 4-H robotics club. 4-H, being the child development arm of the University of Maine, emphasizes hands-on learning and community service, both of which have been integral within our group. Our local 4-H office offers support, resources and great ideas for helping kids create and realize their own goals. While fund raising for the group (as you can imagine, robotics sets, parts and laptops are not cheap) having 4-H behind you helps with recognition within the community (many people we’ve approached for donations were involved with 4-H themselves as kids) and attaching the 4-H logo to an otherwise obscure homeschool group helps folks feel more comfortable about lending a hand. Grants can also be applied for (in Maine see the Perloff Foundation) but many groups require the club be affiliated an organization such as 4-H in order to apply. It takes a small time commitment to become a 4-H Volunteer Leader and the application process itself ensures that the adult has appropriate resources with which to lead youth.
Currently we are holding our robotics club meetings at a local community center, to which we donated funds to help with heating costs. The center does not have room to store our equipment so we have a considerable amount of lugging and packing to do each meeting; about 16 boxes plus laptops and materials. I try to treat this challenge as an opportunity to exercise, at least until I figure out another solution!
The most challenging thing for me thus far has been my own lack of robotics experience. Contrary to my fears, the kids are learning robotics without me. While creativity and innovation are encouraged, we also have several experienced kids who help mentor the younger. So although I feel like I’m scrambling to get educated about robotics so the club will work, the reality is the kids are already doing amazing things with their robots. Instead of instructing kids how to build robots, we are simply helping them find the resources to learn themselves.
While running a homeschool robotics club there are certainly challenges to be faced – the dynamics of a multi-aged group, raising funds for equipment, equipment storage and lack of a robotics instructor. Dealing with these challenges has been a positive learning experience for this homeschool mom.
For information about starting up a 4-H Homeschool Robotics Club in the U.S. contact your local County Extension Office. See http://www.csrees.usda.gov/Extension/ for local contacts. For information about robotics in Maine see http://www.mainerobotics.org