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Robotics becomes transformational force at small rural middle school

As a public school teacher for the past 32 years, Angie Brannen knows her way around a classroom.

She’s taught all grades in some capacity, from prekindergarten through 12th grade, and now serves as the gifted coordinator for the Dooley County School System. In this role, she works with high-achieving students across the district and assists teachers with best practices for meeting the unique needs of those students.

So, when Brannen learned of an opportunity to incorporate robotics into her program, she jumped at the chance. She received some small grants to fund LEGO Spike kits and training, Then, in the summer of 2023, it all began to come together.

Brannen attended the Middle Georgia Robotics Institute at the Museum of Aviation in Warner Robins, funded by Georgia Artificial Intelligence in Manufacturing (Georgia AIM), which gave her the tools to lead a robotics team. The Middle Georgia Robotics Institute is coordinated by the 21st Century Partnership, with funding from Georgia AIM, and Georgia Power. She was then asked by those two organizations to attend another meeting where she connected with STARBASE Robins.

Through these connections, the Dooley County Middle School Cats (FLL) robotics league was formed.

Just a few months later, watching the team was nothing short of amazing, said Middle Georgia STEM Alliance community relations manager Debra Cox. Cox, who coordinates teams across Middle Georgia, said watching the students embrace the robotics challenges was inspiring.

“What an amazing group of young individuals they are,” said Cox. “To watch this team, you would think they had been programming and building robots together for years, but that is simply not the case.”

Throughout the season, Brannen said, members grew closer through collaboration and respect. They are now better critical thinkers, she said, and are more adept at drilling down to the root of a problem to fix it, or to improve a process or line of code.

While the inaugural team’s season ended after the Super Regional competition in January 2024, several team members continue to show up to school early to create, compete, and brainstorm. “Their determination and drive to continue working, to persevere, and to learn additional skills simply blesses my teacher heart,” Brannen said. “These three young men are gaining valuable leadership skills while doing work they enjoy.”

Brannen added that the partnership created through the 21st Century Partnership, Middle Georgia STEM Alliance, STARBASE Robins, and Georgia Power, with funding support from Georgia AIM, is instrumental in cultivating bright futures for the region’s K-12 students. Dooley County in particular is large and rural, with little industry beyond agriculture.

“With the collaboration of these partners, students in rural Dooly County, Georgia, are able to experience STEM and especially robotics in an exciting and even life-altering manner,” she said. “Students who did not know what direction they wanted to take in life are now discussing universities where they can become engineers and have summer experiences to further their robotics knowledge. Changing lives and inspiring people is what teaching is all about.”

Brannen encouraged other teachers to embrace robotics. Even if you aren’t familiar with circuits or coding, it’s a rewarding experience for everyone involved.

“Jump in with both feet. Learn alongside your students. It has been one of the most teacher-heart rewarding experiences of my career,” Brannen said. “Not only do you get to witness students at their best, but you also get to know your students so much more by working alongside them and coaching them with critical thinking questions and scenarios. Your students will do the work. You just give them the space and the freedom to carry it out.”

Compiled by Debra Cox, Middle Georgia STEM Alliance