By Kathy Chouteau
They call him “Mr. M” and he knows a thing or two about inspiring a passion for STEM learning in Richmond students.
Peter Margolis, a retired Silicon Valley teacher and San Pablo resident, runs West County Lego Robotics, a local business that provides Lego Robotics Workshops to approximately 1,000 kids in Kindergarten through sixth grade at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Sheldon and Coronado Elementary Schools in Richmond.
“I found this niche in robotics that really excited me and knew I could do something with it for the kids,” said Margolis about his reimagined career path. Margolis, who had limited resources growing up, primarily focuses his STEM-based efforts on Title 1 schools.
Equipped this year with a $28,000 Chevron Modernization Project Environmental and Community Investment Agreement (ECIA) Grant from the City of Richmond—and in the case of Sheldon, WCCUSD funding allocated to the School Site Council—Margolis and his team run 50-60 minute workshops over the course of 12 full days at the schools.
As part of the workshops, Margolis’ crew collaborates with the students’ teachers to lead multiple sessions that kick off with a little state-of-the-art inspiration: a brief video about what college students and industry professionals are currently doing with Lego robotics.
Next up, the staff challenges the students to dig into bins of Legos and, as a team or individually, create something as a “Lego engineer” and then present it during a show and tell session. “Some are really quite fantastic,” said Margolis of the students’ creations.
Then, working in teams of two on laptops West County Robotics provides, the students learn to use an icon-based program from Lego to begin coding a robot. Margolis might ask them to make their robot go from “point A” to “point B.”
At first the robot is attached to the laptop by a wire, but after the kids do their coding, they perform a file transfer from the laptop to the robot so it becomes autonomous.
“As the kids learn the code they do more extensive coding and more extensive movements,” he said, noting that, “for that hour it is their robot.”
The final step of the workshop involves the students testing out their robots on coding test tables. All is well if they hit the button and the robot follows the code, but if it doesn’t, the kids go back and debug or troubleshoot.
Per Margolis, there’s “total excitement from the kids” for the workshops’ hands-on STEM activities. “Teachers tell me the kids are coming back to the classrooms rejuvenated.”
Amidst all the student enthusiasm, Margolis isn’t sure about the future of his program due, in part, to the WCCUSD’s impending budget cuts.
“It’s a village of kids and staff really helping these kids out and getting them into the 21st century,” he said of his Lego Robotics Workshops, but financial support is needed so he can continue his workshops next year. Margolis said he would be willing to take on more schools if the money was there, so he is “looking for donors and companies interested in helping kids with STEM.”
West County Lego Robotics is a fiscal project of the Ed Fund; donations to support Margolis’ work with Richmond students can be sent to them in the name of West County Lego Robotics.