M-SET spreads STEM to Argonaut Elementary students through mentoring program

October 17, 2019 — by Andy Chen and Kaasha Minocha

Just after their school day ended recently, fourth and fifth graders from Argonaut Elementary moved to sit around different tables in a classroom, and all of them began working on improving a specific part of the lego robot they had been working on. Off to the side, senior Katherine Peng weaved in and out of groups, encouraging and helping them.

Two years ago, alumnus Bassil Shama, who served as the M-SET robotics club president in 2017-2018, organized a volunteering opportunity to mentor fourth and fifth graders from Argonaut on how to build and code basic robots as a way to further the club’s outreach program. 

Organization for the program has continued to evolve since its inception. This year, meetings are held on Wednesdays and Fridays, and each consists of four volunteers from the school’s Mechanical Science and Engineering Team (M-SET) spreading STEM at Argonaut through the creation of various kinds of robots. M-SET tries to have one lead volunteer out of the four present for each session as well as non-lead volunteers. The non-lead volunteers rotate every session and sign up for the two-hour sessions.  

The mentoring program is organized into two sections: competitive, which is part of First Lego League (FLL), and non-competitive, which is part of FLL junior. Both sections have an average class size of 20 students, and are free for the kids to attend. 

The competitive class, made up of fourth and fifth graders, focuses on creating reliable robots that can compete in the FLL competition. While in the FLL junior class, consisting of only third graders, concentrates on teaching important concepts in preparation for the advanced class. 

The competitive class has two FLL teams, each with 10 students. Additionally, there are six parent volunteers who spread out to supervise the 40 total kids. 

Last year, there was no competitive team, and the only students involved were fourth and fifth graders. Meetings happened once a week and scrimmages would rarely occur. This year, by contrast, the meetings are held twice a week and competitions are more frequent. 

Senior Krisha Minocha, who serves as the lead mentor for the program, described how she and the students have benefitted throughout the experience so far. 

“I’m very glad to be able to do this work,” Minocha said. “I’m excited that I get to teach them and make an impact on them at such a young age, because I feel like especially with things like women in STEM, it comes with a young age of being able to make sure that they have equal respect starting in elementary school.”

Minocha said that mentoring at Argonaut has provided numerous benefits to M-SET members, as they are utilizing skills learned in robotics and applying them in their community. Additionally, Argonaut students have gained early exposure to the world of STEM. 

To provide support, Minocha either sits down with the students and takes them through concepts step by step or gives them relevant examples from when she was part of FLL. Additionally, she has them draw out their ideas and then go over them with her. 

For her, the goal of the program is to expose kids to FLL and get them interested in STEM as well as to correct gender imbalance starting at a young age.

A difficulty that Minocha and her peers initially struggled with was not getting enough volunteers from within M-SET. Now, by implementing a SignUpGenius form, they are receiving a lot more support from M-SET members. 

Peng is another robotics mentor who has been positively influenced by working with the students. 

From a leadership standpoint, the volunteer project has helped Peng with organization, time management regarding the children, and keeping notice of what everyone is doing so she knows when to go over and help as well as when to interact with them.

In addition to organization, Peng mentioned how explaining and showing students how a certain concept applies also reinforces her own understanding of the topic.

“I need to make sure I understand physics and general concepts that I’ve learned throughout robotics because its like how the old saying goes: ‘you never truly understand something until you can explain it to someone else,’” Peng said. “I feel like this mentoring is a great example, where I can make sure I really understand something before getting it across to the students.”

Argonaut principal Karen Van Putten has also seen the benefits of the mentoring program.

“It’s sort of a dream come true, because of my connection to the high school, having taught English there,” Van Putten said. “I always thought that would be some of the best kinds of mentoring, whether robotics or other types of mentorship.”

So far, Van Putten said that the partnership between Saratoga High and Argonaut has been a really positive experience. In terms of technical details, she depends on the high school students, and parents also need to be involved because of cases regarding student safety and classroom management.

Van Putten explained how she has to remind her kids that just because it’s an older kid, they still earn the respect of being their coach. She thinks that once they understand that, they really value the coaching and understand that these are real high school robotics team members building big robots, so there is a lot of street credibility there.

Van Putten added that the students and parents may not know the rewards or benefits until several months, or even years later, when the third, fourth and fifth graders will move on to SHS and participate as a robotics team member. 

Van Putten said that these are the “seeds” that are being “planted” right now from the high school, and that is the exciting part. 

“We know that what the high school students are doing right now with our kids are inspiring them in ways that we just cannot express. I think the other benefits are that the high school students are walking away each day, for the most part feeling like, ‘hey I’ve just done something pretty cool with my community,” she said. 

She has walked in and just observed the interactions between the M-SET students and the Argonaut students.

“There is just a natural joy and excitement of teaching and learning, from the high school kids and the little kids,” Van Putten said. “That’s the best part.”

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