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UNR’s Wolf Pack Bots build coding and literacy skills through robotics

A group of children gather around a colorful table with robots on it and converse amongst themselves in a gym.
Jose Davila IV
KUNR Public Radio
The Wolf Pack Bots complete their practice round during the Mendive competition on Saturday, Dec. 10, 2022, in Sparks, Nev.

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A middle school robotics team based at the University of Nevada, Reno is helping students build literacy, coding and teamwork skills.

On a recent Saturday morning, the Wolf Pack Bots are tuning up their robots and getting ready for their first match of the day in the First LEGO League Northern Nevada qualifying competition at Mendive Middle School in Sparks. The six Latinx fourth through eighth grade students go to different schools across the Truckee Meadows, but they’re all a part of Dr. Rachel Salas’ literacy tutoring program at the University of Nevada, Reno.

First LEGO League competitions require teams to build and program robots roughly the size of a shoe to perform specific tasks. This year, the theme of the competition was energy production, so teams were tasked with creating robots that could collect energy cells from a variety of miniature power sources, like wind turbines.

A crowd of people sits on the bleachers of a gym.
Jose Davila IV
KUNR Public Radio
The robotics competitors gather for the opening ceremony of the Northern Nevada First LEGO League qualifier on Saturday, Dec. 10, 2022, at Mendive Middle School in Sparks, Nev.

Salas, the director of UNR’s E.L. Cord Foundation Center for Learning and Literacy, says the robotics program is a way for students to build their literacy skills.

“Students are learning how to program and the programming is called word block, or Scratch, and there’s language involved in it,” she said. “They have to be able to read it and to be able to understand it to program the robot. The research component of the First LEGO League, absolutely, is beneficial to their reading skills, researching skills, writing skills and communication skills.”

The competition also includes a research project that requires the students to design a solution to a problem they see in the world related to the energy theme.

This year, the Wolf Pack Bots designed a solar-powered vest capable of heating or cooling its wearer and even created a prototype with thermal insulation and flexible solar panels on the back. The students came up with the idea after researching how farmworkers risk heatstroke in the fields and learning of the ongoing Russian attacks on Ukrainian energy infrastructure that are leaving civilians at risk of freezing to death.

The Wolf Pack Bots presented the vest to a pair of judges as a part of the competition. Rossie Copado Reyes, a seventh grader at Clayton Middle School in Reno, thinks the presentation, which featured a creative “Shark Tank”-style skit, went well.

“It went really well. I think so, ‘cause the judges, they gave us some really good feedback. They said it was good and to just present it to more people,” she shared.

Six kids stand behind posterboards and present to two seated adults who are dressed in red with their backs to the camera.
Jose Davila IV
KUNR Public Radio
The Wolf Pack Bots present their robot design to a pair of judges on Saturday, Dec. 10, 2022, at Mendive Middle School in Sparks, Nev.

She was right on, because the Wolf Pack Bots would later learn that they won first place in the competition for their vest and presentation.

After the presentation, the team competed in three matches with a goal of collecting as many points as possible in each by completing tasks with their robots. In between matches, they are allowed to switch out robots and fix any problems with the ones used in earlier matches. At the Mendive competition, the Wolf Pack Bots had three robots.

Team member and St. Albert the Great Catholic School sixth grader Paloma Chavez provided some analysis after the Bots’ first match of the competition.

“I feel like the robots did really good today, but on one of the programs, we need to kinda figure something out because it kinda just missed,” she said.

Two girls smile towrd the camera in front of a robotics competition table.
Jose Davila IV
KUNR Public Radio
Paloma Chavez (left) and Rossie Copado Reyes smile for the camera ahead of their first match on Saturday, Dec. 10, 2022, at Mendive Middle School in Sparks, Nev.

The team improved upon its first score in the third match and was invited to the Northern Nevada championship in February.

But there is more than just the competition aspect. Education studies undergraduate student and program coach Viviana Reyes said the program offers the students a chance to improve their vocabularies and grow their knowledge of the world.

“It’s valuable because we have kids involved with doing something they’re not only interested [in], but they’re also expanding their vocabulary and learning and discovering new things that, maybe, if they were not in the team, they wouldn’t have the chance to do it. That’s what I love about it,” she shared.

Reyes also happens to be Rossie’s mom. She says her daughter has become more comfortable with speaking publicly and creating PowerPoint presentations for school since joining the Wolf Pack Bots.

Reyes and Salas also said that, outside of literacy, programming and teamwork skills it builds, the program also helps students see themselves on a college campus and in future STEM-related careers.

Jose Davila IV is a corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project.

As a note of disclosure, the Nevada System of Higher Education Board of Regents owns the license to this station.

Jose Davila IV is a former reporter at KUNR Public Radio.
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