The school day doesn't officially begin at Jackson Middle School until 9:10 a.m.

But on most Thursdays, a group of students already are engaged in an activity in the classroom an hour earlier.

The students are participants in the school's Lego Robotics club, which eighth-grade math teacher Laura Walters started three years ago.

The club has expanded with the help of $1,000 grants from the South-Western City School District Educational Foundation.

Club members meet at 8 a.m. every Thursday, except for one week each month.

"I wanted to start a robotics club to reach out to a group of kids who were a niche group that I saw needed to be served," Walters said. "We don't have a robotics or coding class, and I thought there were a lot of students who might be interested in a club like that."

In the first year, four students participated in the club, working on two robots they built using Lego Mindstorms Robot Kits.

"It's really taken off from there," Walters said. "Now we have 24 students and nine robots. We've had to turn away students this year because we just didn't have room for all of them."

Twenty-nine students applied to be part of the club this year, she said.

In 2018, club members participated in the National Robotics Challenge, an annual event held in Marion.

"We were really excited about giving our students a chance to experience that event," Walters said. "It was so much fun. The kids had a blast."

It's uncertain whether Jackson students will go to the challenge this year because the multi-day event requires students to miss school, and Walters said she is expecting a baby about the same time as the event in April.

Regardless, the Jackson students are working on designing, building and programming robots to complete one of the events held as part of the challenge -- a robot maze.

"They need to program their robots to make their way through the maze," Walters said. "There are two competitions. You can try to have your robot go all the way through the maze without hitting any of the walls, or you do it in a tactile way in which your robot touches the walls to guide it through the maze."

The robotics club members have formed teams, each using a kit to design and build its own robot.

"It's all up to them," said Lynnette Stephens, who serves as the club's co-adviser with Walters.

"As advisers, we're just here to facilitate the club and have an adult present in the room," she said. "The students figure the design they want for their robots themselves and figure out the programming."

It's fun for the students, but they also are learning problem-solving skills that will benefit them in school and life, Walters said.

They're also learning to work together as a team on a project, she said.

Eighth-grader Tyson Evans and seventh-grader Colin McCoy have built a robot they named Norm.

"It's really cool to be able to work on something like this, to build it yourself and run it yourself," Tyson said.

"When your robot does what you want it to do, it's a great feeling."

Programming the robot to make its way through the maze is more difficult than one might think, Colin said.

"We're just trying to get it through the maze in stages," he said. "Coding the robot the right way is really a lot of trial and error. You're tracking, tracking, tracking to make sure the robot does what it's supposed to do."

The robot is more than just a machine to its creators, Tyson said.

"Everybody adds their own individual features to make their robot a little different," he said. "We added a long trailer to Norm. It doesn't really serve any purpose for getting it through the maze. It's just looks really cool."

More practically, the team installed sensors on the front end of the robot to help with the run through the maze, Colin said.

"It helps it know where the walls are," he said.

Tyson said he likes the teamwork aspects of the club.

"You're not just working on something by yourself," he said. "I think it's a good experience working with others and talking about how we want to build our robot. Sometimes it can get a little heated, but then we find a compromise."

Eighth-grader Clayton Joceski joined the robotics club this year after starting a coding club at Jackson last year.

"They kind of complement each other," he said. "The thing I like best about designing a robot is working really hard on a piece of code to make it perform. When that works out, it's so satisfying."

The coding club he started last school year now has about 14 members, Clayton said.

"We do a coding Olympics where you have to complete differing coding tasks and get awarded points based on how well you do," he said. "It's a fun competition to see who gets the most points."

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