Dancing with the Robots by Lisa DeLapo

If you haven’t heard the name Mike Meneghetti, then you probably don’t know that he’s truly a kid at heart. His curiosity, energy, and passion for learning new things are at the heart of his youthful demeanor. For the past 34 years, Mike has been teaching in the Lafayette School District. He taught sixth grade science for most of his career, but four years ago, he decided he wanted to develop a new, exciting engineering and robotics course for students at Stanley Middle School. He went to David Schrag, principal at Stanley Middle School, who easily saw the incredible future benefits of such a course offering for middle school students. Mike wrote and presented a detailed proposal to the generous community organization, Lafayette Partners in Education (LPIE), asking if he could obtain 30 Lego Mindstorms robots and some laptops for programming these complex gadgets. LPIE also saw the opportunity as a huge benefit for students, and the equipment was fully funded. Over the past four years, his engineering and robotics courses have evolved into a full-time endeavor as a year-long elective course for eighth graders and, for sixth and seventh graders, an eight-week “wheel” (students take part in other electives, six weeks at a time).

For eighth graders entering the year-long program, Mike has a mix of students who may or may not have taken the engineering and robotics wheel while in sixth or seventh grade. To get students on the same page when it comes to robotics and programming, he created the Dancing with the Robots challenge. Using three or four robots, the students choose music and choreograph “dance moves” for the robots to perform. In three short weeks, students not only learn block-type programming, but they dive into the four-Cs (collaboration, critical thinking, communication, and creativity).Visiting Mike’s classroom during this three-week project, one would see students failing, discussing possible fixes with each other, revising, and trying again and again -- and not one student off-task or bored. Principal David Schrag says about the program, “Mike’s courses give our students the skills they’ll need to be successful in the future in a fun and innovative way.” The students create props, costumes, and backgrounds for the final competition, and Mr. Meneghetti recruits teachers and administrators as judges, shaping the evaluation process to be much like the popular “Dancing with the Stars” television show. Grading for Mike’s course is based on different goals or phases of a project - done gaming-style. Students must get through phase one to move onto other projects, phases two and three raise the point value. Sometimes, students will exceed expectations, and he will give extra points for newly created phases added onto projects, challenging students to be more innovative and creative with their programming.

Eighth grade student, Ellie Olson, feels like the best part of the engineering and robotics course is seeing the success of the hard work of programming and design. She says, “I didn’t have feelings about programming in the past, but now I am really excited about it.” When asked about the failures that occurred during the three weeks of preparation for the robot dance competition, Ellie felt that there were times that the group disagreed and the frustration mounted, but she added, “We just kept trying and figuring things out together - it was definitely a collaborative effort where all of us in the group had to actively participate.”

Stanley Middle School assistant principal, Betsy Balmat, has been a judge for the competition for the past three years, and she has witnessed the students’ work getting better and more complex each year. Speaking highly of Mike’s abilities, Betsy said, “It’s great to go into Mike’s classroom any time during the week. His passion is what drives him and makes him successful.” She stopped to laugh and added, “Actually, Mike’s the most excited and creative student in the room.”

To see the videos of the Dancing with the Robots challenge, click here.