A provider of STEM-robotics equipment and training for young women and teachers in underserved communities around the globe, the Community Bots is the brainchild of Jack Cooley, a science teacher with a 25-year success record across grades 3-12. Currently teaching third and seventh grades at the Allen-Stevenson School, Cooley previously started a robotics program for the all-girls the Chapin School in New York City.
It was there that Cooley came up with the idea for the Community Bots, a nonprofit that works with academic and social-emotional support providers to help girls pursue higher education and STEM careers. At the time, he was told that girls weren’t really interested in building robots or competing in coding contests.
“When I started the robotics program. It became very apparent that those assumptions were incorrect.”
Within five years, the Chapin School had a top team in the FIRST LEGO League robotics (FLL) competition and would later go on to compete against international teams. The team has attracted many female students, who stepped up to the challenge and relished the idea of proving any nay-sayers wrong.
“Teachers would tell me that they could tell which of the girls were in robotics. Just from their level of creativity and how they rolled with the punches and took on challenges.”
Working with Ana Agón, a Spanish teacher who shared a passion for introducing girls around the world to STEM, Cooley and Agon co-founded the Community Bots. They piloted the program with a few New York public schools in 2016 and offered the program in Nicaragua the following year. The program focused on training teachers, providing any required equipment and access to online learning resources, and supporting them as needed—all with the goal of developing robotics programs that would function independently.
“We wanted to reach schools or nonprofits that serve needy families. Of course, our target audience has always been all girls, but finding the exact mix was tricky. We have been able to do it slowly, but surely, and sometimes we’ve worked in coed schools where we only serve the girls who want to know more about STEM, coding and robotics.”
As a teacher, Cooley has used the CoderZ online learning environment for coding virtual and real robots in the classroom. His school purchased the platform during the pandemic, when the need for a robotics program that could be used remotely was very apparent. “CoderZ was a perfect match for us,” said Cooley, who approached CoderZ about providing a similar experience for the Community Bots’ worldwide audience.
After coming to a mutual agreement, the Community Bots and CoderZ began working together to provide the much-needed access during the pandemic. It didn’t take long for Cooley to realize that the value of that setup extended beyond just managing the pandemic-driven need for remote learning options.
In the past, for example, the organization would invest roughly $25,000 bringing in resources, setting up equipment and procuring computers needed to bring on each new partner. Today, it can use the online coding and robotics platform to set up those initial engagements. “It’s a great way to test the boundaries and see if there is sufficient commitment and see if we are a good fit,” said Cooley. “Then, we can decide whether to set up an in-person program.”
Serving between 150 and 200 girls at any given time, the Community Bots also uses CoderZ to reach a wider audience and make quick pivots as needed. When students in the Dominican Republic program got the call to come back to campus, for example, they were concurrently preparing for their first-ever FLL competition.
“They were able to parlay their CoderZ experience into their real robots and went on to win a major award. This was a major accomplishment for an underserved, all-girls school. That was an incredible story, and now they’re going to continue using the platform in combination with real robots.”
Research supports the need for girls are in elementary and middle school to experience positive role modeling and have hands-on coding. Those experiences also must be fun, engaging and linked to a positive social outcome in the students’ lives. The Community Bots helps to check all these boxes, and more.
“When girls come to our courses, they have to know that they can do this, that it’s fun and that they’re good at it,” said Cooley. “They also need female role models who can talk about their own experiences and what they’ve achieved in the world of STEM.” From there, students can start to see how they can use their new, technical skills to help make the world a better place.
“The evidence strongly supports that if you have those elements in place,” said Cooley, “you can not only help young women begin to develop a passion for STEM, but also a belief system around it.”
CoderZ also helps make STEM and computer science instruction more accessible to teachers who may not have robotics or coding experience. This is crucial for an organization focused on bringing STEM education to a large number of young women and teachers in underserved communities around the globe.
“CoderZ is a perfect match because it helps us reach a wide audience and gives more students a taste of what coding is like in a fun gaming environment. That is what makes it so appealing. It is accessible, easy, and getting it up and running requires a minimal amount of training.”
For Parkland Magnet MS’ teachers, CoderZ offers up real-world applications that help students actually see how what they’re learning is applicable in the real world—even though it’s only in a computer simulation.
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