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Robotics in Education: A Visit to Stephen Tillinghast's Classroom

posted Nov 12, 2014, 11:18 AM by Colin Hanel   [ updated Dec 3, 2014, 1:32 PM by Tom Borer ]

Upon entering room 9 at Bear Valley Middle School you are compelled to want to play.

To want to get hands on.

To plop yourself onto the floor with excited students and dig through Lego pieces.


To pull up your chair next to a student working on a computer to program their robot to perform tasks on this table…


However don’t be fooled. These kids are not just playing. They are experiencing the integration of science, technology, engineering, and math. STEM.

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Stephen Tillinghast is the teacher in room 9 and has worked for years to build students’ experiences into an internationally known program. His students are involved in the FIRST Lego League. The First Lego League (FLL) is a robotics program designed for students ages 9-16. Each fall FLL releases a new challenge. Each challenge has three components:

  1. The robotics challenge: This is the part of the competition where students design and program a robot to perform challenge tasks.

  2. The project: This is the part of the competition where students design a project for a real world problem.

  3. Core Values: This part of the competition is where teamwork is promoted. In addition, they promote the importance of friendly competition. Importance is placed on what students learn rather than what students win. Learn more about this here.

Mr. Tillinghast has seen student success from integrating this program into his classroom. In fact, last year Mr. Tillinghast’s Nanobots group captured the First Lego League Southern California Regional Championship at Legoland. This honor led them to an international competition in Toronto last June.

The Quantum Academy planning team was able to talk with the Nanobot team to learn about their project. Students shared with us their robot they designed. We learned about some of the additions they created to help their robot complete the various challenges. In addition, a group of young ladies from the Nanobots team showed us a quad-copter they designed as the “project’ part of the challenge. Students were asked to create something to help after a natural disaster. The Nanobots designed a quad-copter that had the capability to drop off gas sensors in an urban setting after an earthquake.


In addition to robotics, students in Mr. Tillinghast’s classroom were designing a submersible ROV  for people who cannot SCUBA dive, learning about aircraft design in plane design and simulation software, designing a plaque on a CNC machine, and learning about the use of a 3D printer.

Mr. Tillinghast’s third period class was experiencing STEM for the first time. This class is a STEM “sampler class” where students move through various hands on stations. Students in this class were learning about the design of an airplane wing and lift, building a solar powered car, using solar energy to cook, and many other engaging STEM activities.

Clearly learning in Mr. Tillinghast’s classroom is not only engaging, but an excellent example of how content areas like science, math, and engineering can be integrated. Students take what they have learned in geometry and directly apply the skill of finding the circumference of a circle to measure the distance their robot needs to travel. This is learning with a real world application. This is the kind of learning that sticks.

The Quantum Academy team thanks Mr. Tillinghast and his students for allowing us to peek into what innovation in a classroom looks like.