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Q.     What is robotics?

A.    Robotics is the science and technology of building and programming robots to achieve specific tasks.  We use the Lego Mindstorms robotics system.  It is the most popular system worldwide for teaching robotics to grade-schoolers.


Q.     Is my child is prepared to start robotics? What are the prerequisites for starting with robotics?

A.    There are three components to the robotics program.  The first is the building of various models using Lego parts, principally by following instructions.  This is, conceptually, the simplest part of the program to explain, and one that is easy for virtually every second grader and above.  The second is the programming and testing of the robot model built by the students.  This is somewhat harder, and will be new material to most students.  This is the core of what will be taught in the classes.  The third component is the application of classroom learning (measurement, simple mathematics) to practical problems (e.g. if one rotation of a wheel takes a robot forward four inches, how many rotations need to be programmed for it to travel two feet in a straight line?).  This component is calibrated to match the abilities and knowledge of the student group.  Overall, we expect that any student who is motivated to participate will have a positive experience from attending this class.


Q.     How long will it take for my child to develop a working knowledge of robotics?

A.    While there will be differences between children (no two are exactly alike!), our goals for this program are to introduce the children to the field of robotics.  At the end of this introductory program (the Introductory I class), every student should be able to independently program a robot to do simple tasks like moving along a fixed path.  Children who continue to the Introductory II class will improve their knowledge of sensors, steering and mechanisms and advance their programming skills.  We will offer additional courses in the future to build upon this foundation, including preparing children for First Lego League competitions.  Learning never ends, even for us!


Q.     Who will be teaching the classes?

A.    Barring exceptional circumstances, all classes will be jointly led by Mary Jarratt and Nari Narayanan, occasionally assisted by others.  Ms. Jarratt and Mr. Narayanan are long-time McLean area residents and parents of elementary schoolers.  The instructors have degrees in science, engineering and computer science, and have collectively decades of research and teaching experience.  MRI instructors have been teaching robotics to scores of elementary students for the past several seasons, and also have hundreds of hours of experience coaching FLL teams.  MRI staff also volunteer as judges at FLL competitions.  MRI is the leading area provider of robotics instruction for elementary schoolers.


Q.     How large is each class?  What is the nature of the learning experience?

A.    We expect a typical class to have 12 to 18 students.  This equates to a student-teacher ratio of 6:1 or better, which permits us to offer high-quality instruction with individualized instruction for each student.  The students will generally work in groups of two, and each student group will have their own Mindstorms kit and a laptop computer for learning and for programming the robot.


Q.     Who is eligible to take these classes?

A.    Our programs are designed for elementary schoolers in the second through sixth grades.  However, due to capacity constraints (space is always hard to find!) and the need to narrow the learning differential in the classroom, we prefer to group children with others of like ability, motivation and knowledge.  This allows us to offer a maximum of individualized instruction without making the cost prohibitive to some or all of the parents.  In the Winter 2011 session, we are offering one new session (at the Introductory I level) and two continuing sessions (at the Introductory II level).  The new section (Section A) is targeted at third and fourth graders.  The continuing classes (Sections B and C) are targeted at 2nd/3rd and 4th/5th graders respectively.  We can sometimes accomodate children outside these grade bands -- please contact us to discuss any special arrangements you may need.  We expect to offer a new class at the Introductory I level in the spring term (April-June).  Although we have periodically accepted children younger than second graders into our program, we recommend against it.  This is not generally because of any learning limitations of young children as much as due to the lack of adequate opportunity to practice and maintain their skills after they have mastered the basics.  We, at MRI, are working on changing this constraint.  We hope to launch a local competition league within the next year, so that all children with basic training can work at a level consistent with their knowledge, ability and training.  Once this infrastructure stabilizes, we will encourage younger children to explore Lego Mindstorms-class robotics.


Q.     Can my child enroll in the session with a friend?

A.    Yes, subject to capacity constraints, and instructor approval - please let us know.  Feel free to share the information with others who might be interested.


Q.     How long is the program? When will it start?

A.    The program at the Churchill Road School will consist of nine classes, one of which (the May 2, 2011 class) will last three hours and the remaining eight of which will last one-and-a-half hours each.  Please see the Current Classes page for detailed information on the current season's program.    


Q.     What are the fees?

A.    The standard fee for the 9-class Spring 2011 program will be $370 per student (including all materials/technology fees). Please note that this amount only meets part of the costs of running such a program.  The basic equipment for each group of two students (the typically work unit) costs in excess of $1,200, making it expensive to scale such a venture, especially given that most technology products become obsolete well before they give up the ghost.  In addition, MRI incurs considerable research and training expenditures to keep our teaching staff at the cutting edge of educational innovation and substantive subject knowledge.

These classes are part of a multi-year plan to create a sustainable infrastructure for children to learn robotics, holding multiple levels of classes for children of different ages and abilities and perhaps having a local competition league where children can continue learning through robotics through frequent age- and skill-appropriate local meets.  We would like your support in this endeavor.

At the same time, we would like to ensure that all qualified children of varying social and economic backgrounds have the opportunity to learn and grow through robotics.  If cost is a constraint, please let us know.  The founders of McLean Robotics Institute are currently donating their time to the project, and financing the considerable start-up costs of this venture.


Q.     Will you offer this program again?

A.    We will offer similar programs in all three academic year seasons (Fall, Winter, Spring).  We also offer several advanced courses that build upon our basic sequence of three introductory-level classes.


Q.     Who can I talk to for further information?

A.    Please feel free to contact any of the people listed on the Contacts page for additional information.

Status: FINAL.  This page last revised on May 21, 2011.