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'I really didn't know the meaning of school, and now I do,' robotics student says.

COURTESY PHOTO: JILLIAN DALEY - Teacher Craig Johnston's sixth-period robotics students — including, from left, Phoenix Moss, Aiden Vigus, and Madison Sturm — are glad to be able to learn in a physical classroom again, with more advanced, hands-on projects. Some things just work better in person, including teaching a class on one of the hottest topics in tech: robotics.

North Marion Middle School science teacher Craig Johnston delighted in the fact that online learning kept his classes rolling during the quarantine. But he also struggled because online classes required using smaller, less complicated devices like micro bits (mini computers) that did not challenge the students as much.

Johnston was not about to let each middle schooler in his robotics class take home a $350 Lego Mindstorms Robot Kit that students usually share while in a physical classroom. Yet with students back to in-person learning again this past fall, the opportunities for enrichment have spiked — including having easy access to resources like the Lego Mindstorms kits.

"The depth of work we got into last year with micro bits, I've surpassed that so much this year already, just because the kids have access to resources like VEX robots or Lego Mindstorms," Johnston said. "We have those resources here, and now the kids are here and ready to work."

During visits to classrooms in all four North Marion schools this fall, students expressed how important it has been to them to have teachers, friends and classmates close at hand to support them. Each school, each classroom, had its own learning community, where students collaborated, cooperated and built up their knowledge together. It's a little like how a team works together to build a Lego robot, piece by piece.

Teams building together

Robotics students said that tinkering with the micro bits and reviewing diagrams of robots in a virtual classroom didn't illustrate how robotics works as well as designing, building and operating your own 'bot at a table with your peers and teacher nearby.

Eighth grader Natalie Parmenter said she enjoyed online school because she found it to be more laid back, but she noticed that the content was lighter.

"You couldn't do things like this," Natalie said, looking at the Mindstorms kit. "It was simple work, not fun things."

In a way, studying robotics virtually was more challenging, but not because of the content, said eighth grader Paige Comerford.

"It's harder to learn a concept online," Paige said.

Seventh grader Lucas Stafford felt similarly to Paige, noting, "It's easier to hold a robot in my hands instead of looking at a picture of it."

Sixth grader Madison Sturm said that a hands-on robotics class has even more benefits besides offering more robust content that's easier to grasp. Madison, who partners with sixth graders Aiden Vigus and Phoenix Moss on projects, said that the class also affords students the chance to collaborate.

"It's fun to work with people and see how working together helps get things accomplished," Madison said.

Aiden said he's just glad to come back and see his friends in person, and he wasn't exactly overjoyed with online learning.

"I'm not a huge fan of online," he said. "When I started I was like, oh my God, why?"

Struggling to tune in online

Phoenix, at a table working on a Mindstorms kit with Madison and Aiden, said he loves that if he misses anything in an in-person class, he can ask his robotics partners or a teacher. Studying with a network of supporters feels right.

"I really didn't know the meaning of school, and now I do," Phoenix said.

Seventh grader Kevin Lopez said that it's not that you can't ask for help when you're working online. It's just easier to ask when you're physically in the same room as a teacher.

"A lot of students were more nervous to be on camera," Kevin said.

But now Johnston is standing by to help, and so is eighth grader London Swank. Practically a student aide, he completes his own work and regularly fields questions from his younger classmates.

"I try to help them figure it out by helping myself figure it out," London says.

He said he relishes learning through teaching. It pains him to see other students feeling confused and warms his heart to help others. Also, he missed socializing with friends.

"I can definitely tell you it's very good for our social health to be around other people," London said.

He was thrilled this past spring when school went to the hybrid model in which students were allowed to physically attend class a couple days a week. He just didn't get as much out of the virtual online learning program.

"Even hybrid learning is better," London said.

To share your North Marion School District story idea, email Communications Specialist Jillian Daley at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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