At Selma Middle School, students are giving life to robots.
Eighth-graders in Lucy Waters’ advanced robotics class are building their creations from the ground up – from assembly to movement. The idea, Waters said, is to teach young people how to apply engineering fundamentals in the real world.
Her students appreciate the practical application of learning.
“I’m more of a hands-on type of person,” said eighth-grader William Betts.
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Walters hails from western New York, where she worked as a computer programmer for 10 years. She planned to continue in that field when she moved to North Carolina in 2000 but decided to try teaching after finding herself inundated with job offers.
“Teaching found me,” Walters said. “I moved down here and had tons of job offers right away.”
She took her first teaching job with Johnston County schools and has been in the system ever since. Walters came to Selma Middle last year from Benson to make the engineering program more rigorous and to sharpen its focus, she said.
At Selma, Walters teaches three engineering classes: an introductory course, a class in automation robotics and the advanced the class.
In the advanced class, students learn the mechanical, electrical and computer engineering processes needed to build a functioning robot. In addition to real-world applications of classroom studies, Walters also stresses the importance of teamwork.
“If it’s a group of three and somebody’s absent, they’ll need to carry on,” she said. “The same amount of work still needs to be done. Those are life skills that hopefully will help them.”
Walters said she hopes her students gain the skills needed to continue studying engineering principles in high school. Smithfield-Selma High offers engineering, and Walters said she collaborates with SSS robotics teacher Wes Hill to make sure the students are getting what they need.
“I look at this as: We’re a middle school – it’s a link in the chain,” Walters said. “A lot of what I do is the basics. You don’t see how it continues, but your job is to see that a solid, solid foundation is built.”
Selma Middle’s engineering program has its roots in Project Lead the Way, a nonprofit initiative that develops STEM curricula in elementary, middle and high schools. STEM is short for science, technology, engineering and math.
Selma Middle and Smithfield Middle were the first Johnston schools to join the initiative. Riverwood Middle and Cleveland Middle have since signed on. In addition to SSS, Clayton High and Cleveland High offer engineering.
At a recent Selma Town Council meeting, Selma Middle School principal John Bell told council members he’s thrilled with the work Walters has done. “It’s hard to find someone with that engineering background and math background, because you know they can make a lot of money in the private sector,” he added. “But you have to have the want to do it.”
After students in Walters’ advanced class have mastered the basics – writing the code needed to make a robot move – they can program their creations to perform tasks. It’s complicated stuff, Walters said, but her students have proven themselves to be more than capable.
“Kids rise to whatever challenges you give them,” she said. “If you give them the opportunity, they’ll rise right up.”