Can a robot solve a Rubik’s Cube? These students aim to find out.

SRP classroom grant powers Phoenix middle school’s robot-building club

For many of us, the Rubik’s Cube is an indecipherable geometric nightmare: turn left, turn right, the scramble remains.

But a group of eighth-graders at Western Valley Middle School in Phoenix are solving it with a 21st-century approach.

They built a robot to do it, thanks in part to an SRP Learning Grant presented to the school last year.

“This is really exciting. I’m really proud of them,” said teacher Antonio Morales, referring to all of the 96 students currently enrolled in the school’s packed-to-capacity Wildcat Robotics Club.

He applied for the grant – which is available to all educators in the Phoenix metropolitan area, Pinal County, Gila County, Yavapai County, Page and St. Johns, and even helped one school launch a craft into space – after learning about it from a fellow science teacher.

Morales received $5,000 and used it to purchase 12 Lego Mindstorms EV3 robotics kits and five EV3 expansion sets Total cost: $4,979.54.

The kits contain a programmable “brick” (basically the system’s CPU) and numerous interchangeable parts and sensors. Students can configure the EV3s into anything from electronic reptiles to vehicles to robotic devices that can lift, move and alter objects.

“Now we have 13 robots and 96 students are benefiting from the donation,” Morales said. Students from all grade levels at the school are welcome to participate.

It was an eighth-grade team that developed the robot that can solve the Rubik’s Cube after Morales showed them a video of another robot accomplishing the feat. The children researched that project, found some schematics online and got to work.

Now they’re waiting for one final piece of equipment to finalize the design – the color sensor needed for the device to correctly identify color patterns. Morales said it’s on order and that once it arrives the robot will “definitely” solve the cube in three minutes or less.

It’s been a big school year for the club. Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton dropped in to witness firsthand the students’ amazing work. And on Feb. 10 Morales and his students will make a presentation about Wildcat Robotics to the Fowler Elementary School District governing board.

Why all the excitement?

“It’s fun,” Morales said. “They’re learning programming and I tell them, ‘You can’t break it. If something doesn’t work, just work with it, fix it, adjust the wires, experiment.’”

“I would tell other teachers it’s worth the effort.”

Beyond the hands-on science, math and engineering experience, Morales said the students’ biggest takeaway is teamwork – a skill set very applicable to the business world.

Morales said he spent about 10 hours on his grant application – one hour writing it all out and another nine or so sporadically tweaking it to get it just right.

“I would tell other teachers it’s worth the effort,” he said. “Get with your colleagues, do it in collaboration with another teacher or two, get their ideas and put it together. And make it inclusive. We have general education, special education, English language learners and honors students all working together.”

“I’m going to apply for the next round of grants from SRP,” he added. “We have a waiting list for the club.”

Applications for SRP Learning Grants are being accepted through March 31. Learn more and apply here.

Ed Baker

Ed Baker

Ed lives in Tempe and works in Internet Communications where he oversees websites for SRP’s commercial electric, water and economic development groups. In his free time, he runs, bikes, hikes and, once a year, hosts a mean charity bocce tournament for Tempe Community Action Agency.

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