By Khalida Sarwari
Every Thursday after the final bell rings at the Nueva School in Hillsborough, one classroom transforms into a lab where students as young as 8 huddle over laptops programming and designing robots that roam underneath a maze of tables and chairs.
There are robots roaming the surface of elementary and middle school classrooms in a number of cities across the San Francisco Peninsula, including Palo Alto, Menlo Park, and San Carlos. Mars just may be the next destination.
The builders are children and youth between the ages of 6 and 14 who are enrolled in Wizbots, an after-school program that enables kids to create and invent using a combination of LEGO Mindstorms NXT kits and materials such as paper, cardboard, plastic pipes, and pipe cleaners.
In the course of each 90-minute class, students learn how to program and build robots from their own imagination. If they weren’t so busy having fun, the students would realize they are actually using math and science.
“I wanted something that would get kids excited about math and science,” said Conor McGann, the 42-year-old founder of Wizbots. “Our mission is to engage kids in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) subjects and carry them through those early teen yearswhen there’s a drop-off in interest.”
What’s more, those skills are being fostered in a setting where kids can motivate each other, share their work and benefit from collaboration, said McGann.
That collaboration has resulted in many memorable experiences in the classroom, said Robert Bernstein, an architect and Wizbots instructor who resides in San Carlos.
About six months ago, one of his classes consisting mainly of fourth- and fifth-graders built a robot and then placed it in a space confined by cardboard walls. The robot, no matter where it was placed, responded by moving away from the wall.
“It was sort of taking an idea that seemed incredibly difficult to do,” Bernstein said. “The kids really reacted to it with some amazement that that worked.”
Every class comes with its own set of challenges and opportunities for problem-solving, said Raphael Mahpour, the Wizbots program director.
“Kids have unlimited access to information these days, with YouTube and Wikipedia. But, at a young age they need to have a desire to learn,” Mahpour said. “That’s what we’re creating in the labs.”
For some students, like 8-year-old Dylan Pratt, a third-grader at Las Lomitas Elementary School in Atherton, the learning doesn’t end when the class does.
“My son comes home and he starts to build things that he learned in class,” his mother Kristin Kueter said. “When we picked him up, oftentimes, he would say ‘This has been the best day ever.'”
The program also nurtures the abilities of students with learning disabilities. Lisa Guevara enrolled her 9-year-old son Andrew, a fourth-grader at Charles Armstrong School in Belmont with dyslexia, in the program a few years ago and found it to be compatible with his learning style.
“The teachers treat the kids with a lot of respect,” Guevara said. “They really value the ideas that the kids come up with. My son is an out-of-the-box thinker and Wizbots supports that.”
Inspired by a robotics program at St. Charles School in San Carlos where his kids attend, McGann founded Wizbots in January 2010 with the intention of implementing the program on a large-scale basis.
McGann and a small staff bought materials, developed a curriculum and launched the program at three schools. Today, Wizbots is offered at 20 different schools in 15 cities across the Bay Area, including Benicia, Belmont, Redwood City, Los Altos, Woodside, San Mateo, and Atherton.
The East Bay may be next to get a taste of Wizbots, McGann said. The goal is to expand the program to Oakland, Piedmont, and Fremont. The cities of Burlingame, San Francisco, Mountain View, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, and Santa Cruz are also under consideration.
“We’ll be all over the Bay Area probably within a year,” he said.
The aim is to ultimately create a large hybrid physical and digital peer-to-peer learning community for kids, McGann said.
The classes are generally $25 per weekly session and the program ranges from eight to 10 weeks depending on the school.
This summer, Wizbots is offering a summer camp program at five locations in Palo Alto, Menlo Park, and San Carlos. The fee is $225 for five three-hour classes.
More information about Wizbots can be found at www.wizbots.com.