Each week, fourth and fifth grade gifted students from across Gordon County gather at Belwood Elementary School to learn and collaborate together on projects related to robotics and math, literature and drama, science and ecology, geography and careers as part of the school system’s G6 gifted program.
“The lessons are built around STEAM subjects and focus heavily on collaboration,” said Belwood Principal Justin Timms. “It gives kids in our gifted programs the opportunity to work together on things they are interested in and to do that at their own pace.”
Timms said the program operates much like an independent study program in that students are encouraged to make their own choices about which subjects they would like to study.
This means that while some students will opt to study literature, others might choose to learn about careers or ecology.
For students like Abby Mulkey, who elected to take part in the robotics program, selecting a subject was easy. She opted in for robotics because it sounded “really cool” and she wanted to study something she hadn’t ever gotten to study before. Now, just a few weeks into the school year, she and her classmate Gianna Cordovi proudly showed off the robot they named BOBZILLA — which Mulkey insisted must always be written in all caps.
“We used code to make it drive and operate a crane machine,” Mulkey said.
Getting a robot to operate a crane machine is just one element of a larger “challenge” that students are asked to complete, according to G6 teacher Ray McWhorter. Students in the robotics program compete in the FIRST LEGO League, an international robotics competition that involves designing and programming LEGO Mindstorm robots to complete specific tasks.
“The school gets sent a challenge mat from the league at the start of the year and it has individual missions on it that they have to work out and get their robots to do,” McWhorter said. “They get eight weeks to look over the mat and figure out how to get it done, and then they get two and a half minutes to show that off in competition.”
In competition, robots have to work completely independently, based on students’ code, to complete all of the missions on the challenge mat. Missions include things like taking a loose piece from one model and placing it inside of another or getting a robot to lift a part of the mat in order to set off a reaction somewhere else.
Other students in the G6 robotics program, like Sierra Bowers and Paisley Lance, have moved from working on their robots to 3-D printing accessories for their robots to wear during competition. James Morris, another teacher in the G6 program, said they design the products in a program called CAD and then print them on the school’s 3D printer.
On Tuesday, Bowers and Lance were working on creating a top hat accessory for their robots to wear during competition and a miniature top hat keychain that all members of their robotics team will get to keep.
“The hat is going to be black and the ribbon is going to be red,” Lance said. “The side has cat ears and they’re going to be white with pink inside.”
A short walk down the hall from the robotics classroom, other students in the program were writing stories based on their own personal experiences after reading Shakespeare’s work. The idea, they said, was to channel their life into something they could put a creative spin on.
In another classroom, students were studying ecosystems. They tested the PH of 10 different substances and are planning to visit a pond on campus to collect water samples, which they will then test in the hopes of discovering what changes could be made to make it a better ecosystem for animals and plants.
Other students were reading “Chasing Space” and “Hidden Figures” to learn about careers in space, and others were learning about geography and how math is used around the world.
“Our hope in making all these subjects available to these kids is that they’ll find something they’re interested in, love it, and want to keep learning about it forever,” Timms said. “These are some of our best and brightest students and this program challenges them to think and apply material differently than any other program does.”