Recycling and Robotics: STEM class grows digital skills

St Michael's Catholic Primary Belfield Year 2 students build lego robots with STEM teacher John Burfoot. Photo: Gene Ramirez

St Michael’s Catholic Primary Belfield Year 2 students build lego robots with STEM teacher John Burfoot. Photo: Gene Ramirez

A dedicated STEM teacher is opening  young minds and doors to valuable future skills at St Michael’s Catholic Primary Belfield.

John Burfoot runs workshops for students and teacher training on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) projects two day a week at Macquarie University’s ICT Innovation Centre. The facility is a collaboration between the university and the Department of Education.

He teaches activities such as coding, game design, and maker spaces at St Michael’s one day a week, and is currently preparing students in Years 1 and 2 for the FIRST Lego League Junior ‘Waste Wise’ expo held at Macquarie University in August.

It’s a bit new to be known as a STEM teacher in Kindergarten, so it’s pretty cool.

– John Burfoot

Groups of up to six students have brainstormed lists of everyday items and sorted them according to the four R’s – reduce, reuse, recycle, and remake. They will now research one that doesn’t fit into those categories and make a model robot using Lego ‘WeDo’ kit to demonstrate what could be done with it. This will be presented with a poster of their research at the expo. The event is not a competition but a chance for students aged 6 to 9 to share ideas and explain their projects to visitors.

Mr Burfoot said there were a few different benefits of STEM or STEAM (the ‘A’ stands for Arts) as a school focus.

“One is that they are creating with their hands and with their minds,” he said. “They’re going through a design process where failure is part of that learning journey, and coming up with a solution. For students, making something that is useful is very rewarding. With the design cycle, if you want to make something useful, it’s going to go through a few different prototypes, so it all comes back to teaching students to persevere when solving problems.”

St Michael's Catholic Primary Belfield Year 2 students build and program Lego robots. Photo: Gene Ramirez

Mr Burfoot has also set up a ‘Maker space’ in the school’s library, where students have made Mother’s Day cards that light up using copper foil circuits. Coding skills will prepare students for the digital world, where mainstream jobs such as plumbing and textile design are becoming more digital.

“We’re preparing students for a digital world,” he said. “Not just for jobs that haven’t been invented yet, but to understand the mainstream jobs with a digital influence.”

One Year 2 class group chose batteries and another chose paint as the focus for their Lego robotics projects. 2016 is the second year of the program’s ‘Waste Wise’ theme. “One group discovered that batteries end up in landfill and that all of the batteries that can be recycled  have to be sent overseas because we don’t have any battery recycling centre in Australia, so that’s a great topic,” Mr Burfoot said.  “A lot of this is driven by questions and at a young age they’re not inhibited in asking those questions, whereas adults think ‘we can’t ask those questions, we might look silly’.

‘‘I’ve long given up the idea that I know more than the kids, because I am always surprised by the inspiration that can come from the minds of young students. It may well be an idea that is unique and would work and may inspire others to do something similar.”

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