Sixth-grade students Hayden Miles, Jordan Williams and Brooklynn Jessup watch as Sarah Armstrong attempts to get her robot through a course during Bill Kunnecke's Introduction to Mobile Robotics class at North Marshall Middle School (Marshall County) Feb. 23, 2011. Photo by Amy Wallot

Sixth-grade students Hayden Miles, Jordan Williams and Brooklynn Jessup watch as Sarah Armstrong attempts to get her robot through a course during Bill Kunnecke’s Introduction to Mobile Robotics class at North Marshall Middle School (Marshall County) Feb. 23, 2011. Photo by Amy Wallot

By Matthew Tungate

When Bill Kunnecke, pre-engineering teacher at North Marshall Middle School (Marshall County) asks students to measure distance using the circumference of a circle, the answer can decide how far a robot flings an object across a room or how close it comes to crashing into a wall.

“One rotation of our mobile robot’s wheel represents two things – the circumference of the wheel and the same distance the robot travels forward,” said Kunnecke, a mathematics teacher for 25 years as well as founder of the pre-engineering program at North Marshall Middle five years ago. “So you get a natural connection between an important measurement concept and its utility as a problem-solving tool.”

Students in Kunnecke’s Mobile Robotics class are using Legos to build programmable robots – and he’s integrating other core subjects in the process. Students have to use what they know to put information into the robot’s “brain,” or microprocessor about the size of two decks of cards. Students program the robot to use its four sensors ­– sound, touch, ultrasonic and rotational – to create outputs such as rolling its wheels.

“They get to manipulate the programming data and then see how their robot responds to the way they changed it – maybe doing what they hoped and maybe not,” Kunnecke said. “That’s where they do the learning.”

Out of the core content, students also learn science, he said. Students get practical experience understanding topics like energy transfer, which is a focus in middle school, and ultrasonic waves like those used by bats.

The six-week classes limit the depth of mathematics and science connections he can make, Kunnecke said, but students are exposed to physical science topics like torque (power) vs. speed and gear ratios.

Building and programming the robots also requires literacy, teamwork, creativity and problem-solving.

The pre-engineering part comes by teaching students the design process, Kunnecke said.

“That is a purposeful set of methods to help you take and create something that works and works well,” he said.

Because students program the robots, they are learning technology literacy as well, Kunnecke said.

“It’s just one of these technologies that’s becoming more accessible and has tremendous upside for connecting it to our curriculum,” he said. “You’ve got to keep finding those things that help reinforce the things we’re trying to do in school. But we’ve got to look to the future, too, and the future is automation.”

Students always work with a partner in building their robot, and sometimes Kunnecke will ask students who are advancing more quickly to take a class period to help students who are struggling. That makes his classroom a learning community.

“What I tell them is, ‘Some days you’ll be the expert, but some days you’ll be the kid who needs help,’” he said.

Principal Aimee Lepisto said middle school is a transition for students, and some struggle with that.

Kunnecke’s Mobile Robotics class, as well as his pre-engineering Project Lead the Way (PLTW) classes, help students enjoy school, Lepisto said.

“Sometimes they don’t even realize they’re learning math and science,” she said.

Lepisto, a former mathematics teacher who became principal five years ago when North Marshall Middle opened, said the new school has a classroom built just for the sort of pre-engineering classes Kunnecke teaches.

“We have pre-engineering courses at the high school as well, so the intention is for us to be a feeder into the high school program,” she said. “We hope to generate the interest in this level to build that program up at the high school level.”

How the program started

Kunnecke said Lego mobile robotics originally was not part of the pre-engineering program. The first year he taught two PLTW classes and four mathematics classes.

While showing students videos in PLTW classes, he saw Lego Mindstorm NXT robots. So he researched and wrote a grant to get three robots, which he used to start an after-school program to compete in the First Lego League. The program created tremendous excitement among participants, Kunnecke said.

The following year he created the first Mobile Robotics class using the Lego robots. He said his Mobile Robotics class and PLTW classes overlap on the software, but they create different kinds of robots. PLTW robots are less autonomous for industrial applications, whereas Lego robots move, talk, turn and respond to sound commands.

“If it wasn’t for Project Lead the Way I wouldn’t be doing all the Lego stuff,” he said. “It’s so complimentary to the pre-engineering. I’ve heard nothing but positives about implementing Lego robotics from students, parents and the people in the school system.”

That summer, Kunnecke attended the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Academy training for a week, which deepened his understanding of the robots, he said.

“My skill level increased such that I could cut out more of the bottlenecks for students,” Kunnecke said. “After that training experience, when class robot problems came up, I knew exactly what the problem was and how to teach them to see it and solve it. It saved them time and allowed for more learning.”

Robots get students involved

Lepisto said the First Lego League teams, which compete with other schools to see who can make their robots perform best, appeal to a section of the population that doesn’t appeal to other extracurricular activities.

“These are kids who were not involved in athletics or academic team,” she said. “They’re smart kids but they just maybe hadn’t found their niche.”

The same applies to the pre-engineering classes, Lepisto said.

“His classes are a lot more hands-on than other classes are, just by the way the curriculum’s built, so we have kids who may not be successful in other areas of school that really do thrive in those classes because they’re able to appeal to a different part of their brain,” she said. “Then that success in those classes builds their confidence, and we see that overflowing and spilling into other areas.”

Kunnecke said he has seen those results as well.

“One of the kids told me, ‘I just never thought my love of Legos would be able to carry on into middle school and be able to do something with it,’” he said.

Teachers don’t have to be experts

Kunnecke said he has used his PLTW and Carnegie Mellon training to learn about building and controlling robots, managing inventories, and facilitating rather than dictating learning.

He encouraged teachers to research the Lego robots, which come with tutorials, and start with a small after-school program as he did. Familiarizing themselves with the software may take teachers two or three hours, Kunnecke said.

“There’s no requirement for the teacher to totally understand it all,” he said. “The kids will dive in, and if the teacher will just hang on with them, they’ll learn.”

Lego NXT Mindstorm kits have 400 pieces and cost about $300, he said.

“It’s technology that’s accessible to kids, and it’s reliable and durable.”

Lepisto said paying for Kunnecke’s extra time and materials, as well as his position, is worth it.

“We could choose to send him back to the math classroom,” she said, “but we choose not to do that because we feel like the benefits of that enrichment are so great.”


Bill Kunnecke,, (270) 395-7108