Staff photo by Troy Stolt / CSLA students Hudson Greene, 9, Jayanth Siddenki, 9, Aubrey McBrayer, 10, and Lauren Commander, 10, plan a strategy for their LEGO robots, which they will use to complete challenges in the First LEGO League Challenge later this month.

When Anna Clark talks about robotics, her eyes brighten and her facial expressions get more animated. She says she first learned about robotics during a STEM expo at Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts, where she recently finished eighth grade. The expo included a First Lego League robot game field setup, which is a mat spread out on a table upon which mission modules constructed of Legos are used to complete challenges. Anna, then 9 and a longtime fan of Legos, decided to sign up for robotics camp that summer. From then on she was hooked.

She says she wants to be an electrical engineer, and thinks her experience with robotics will help her to breeze through anything related to technology or programming in school.

"I can't wait to learn calculus to learn how the stuff we're doing works," says Anna, who's now a ninth grader at STEM School Chattanooga.

Not every child exposed to robotics experiences love at first sight like Anna, but the folks behind Tennessee Valley Robotics want every child in Hamilton County public schools to have the opportunity. In the next four years they hope to bring robotics to every Hamilton County school, expanding beyond the 20 schools they are working with so far.

The nonprofit organization provides the materials, equipment and training to teachers who are interested in incorporating robotics into their classrooms. Funding comes from Volkswagen and BVI, a nonprofit organization for TVA retirees, says Charley Spencer, TVA retiree and Tennessee Valley Robotics treasurer. Training is provided by Scott Rosenow, a teacher at CSLA who's trained 16 teachers in robotics.

It makes sense that most teachers are pretty unfamiliar with robotics, considering the field wasn't around until the mid-2000s. But it also makes sense to start learning now, considering the multitude of applications in both academia and the workforce.

"It's an opportunity to prepare students for the future, and by the way, they enjoy it," says former Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson, on why he supported incorporating robotics into classrooms across the district.

He says that in addition to STEM jobs, robotics also incorporates soft skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, communication and creativity that prepare students for any profession.

Robotics curriculums exist for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, and there's a lot that aligns with what kids are required to learn according to state standards, Spencer says.

For the next year, Tennessee Valley Robotics will be evaluating the success of the current programs and working with school administrators to formulate a strategy to incorporate robotics into the classroom.

"Having this type of activity helps students think differently and attack problems from a different perspective," says CSLA principal Krystal Scarborough.

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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / CSLA students Nishi Bonthula, 13, and Jessica Freeman, 13, make adjustments on their VEX IQ robot, a type of snap-together robotics system. The students then learn to move their robot through computer programming or coding.