Innovation in Action: Computer Science and Engineering Robotics Sets Bar High

When two worlds collide, the results can often be unpredictable and significant.

Such is the case with the computer science and engineering robotics programme at St. Michael’s College School (SMCS).

“My goal was to create an engaging programme which necessitates students learning in an inquiry-based, experiential way,” says Robert Hofstatter who teaches both courses, offered in Grades 11 and 12.

Mr. Robert Hofstatter, an engineering robotics teacher at St. Michael's College School.

Robert Hofstatter, teaches computer science and engineering robotics at St. Michael’s College School.

“My educational philosophy stems from 20 years as a seasoned vice president of technology at one of the big five banks,” he says. Hofstatter joined the SMCS faculty in September 2018 – his first year of teaching full-time in a second career.

“I knew what I needed to see in my team in the corporate environment, what skills would be critical. I have incorporated that thinking into my programmes, both from the perspective of what I teach above and beyond ministry curriculum, as well as how I teach and engage with my students.” 

Aligning and integrating his vast business experience to a high school curriculum has enabled Hofstatter to cultivate an innovative mindset in his students.

The use of a multitude of educational tools, resources, and learning experiences both in the classroom and out, along with teaching the required material, has enabled a deep fusion of knowledge within both courses.

St. Michael's College School students at MLSE for a computer science practicum

A group of computer science students participated in a practicum at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) facilitated by Community and Learning Partnerships.

“I have worked relentlessly with Community and Learning Partnerships over the past two years to craft unbelievable Grade 12 practicum experiences that afford incredible learning opportunities for my students to see the professional fields of computer science and engineering up close,” continues Hofstatter. “From practicums at Glen Dimplex Americas in engineering to Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE) in computer science, students rave about the exposure they are given.”

Community and Learning Partnerships at SMCS is led by John Walsh ’73, a classroom teacher for more than 25 years, who has been in his current role since 2017. 

Over March Break this year, a group of students had the opportunity to travel with Hofstatter on an engineering trip to the Hoover Dam --- straddling the border between Arizona and Nevada. They also visited the Grand Canyon and toured the engineering school at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas gaining further practical, real-world knowledge. Walsh also accompanied the group.

St. Michael's College School students on a trip to the Hoover Dam over March Break.

Over the March Break, several students experienced and engineering-focused trip with Robert Hofstatter, visiting the Hoover Dam and Grand Canyon.

Evidence of the cumulative learning becomes most evident in the culminating project task (CPT) assigned to students as an end-of-year assignment worth between 15% and 30% of their final mark, depending on the course.

“The CPT assignments are complex, multi-phased, multi-month, projects that give students the perspective of what project delivery at university (and in the workplace) will be like,” says Hofstatter. “Throughout, they have to hone their time management, project management, research, communication, and oral presentation skills while using their technical knowledge gained in class to create unique and valuable solutions.”

“The CPT project is similar to a capstone project in engineering at university,” he adds. “Students are expected to draw on all of their prior knowledge, be it from lectures and practicum experiences and combine that with additional research they must complete to gain specific skills on unique operations needed to make their project work. The key is to apply knowledge in a new and unique way to solve a problem that is complex and which the students have not been specifically taught to solve.”

Fr. William May, CSB presenting the Basilian STEM Award at St. Michael's College School.

The first Basilian STEM award held during the 2019-20 academic year celebrated the accomplishments of engineering and computer science students.

The inaugural CPTs in both programmes were showcased in May, 2019 during the first-ever Basilian STEM Award. Students presented their efforts which included a prosthetic arm, an alarm clock, and a drone able to soar two stories high (the overall winner) --- each built by student hands.

Even though the Basilian STEM awards were not held this year due to COVID-19, the quality of the submitted projects remained very high, further raising the bar.

“This year’s CPT projects were very impressive, from an interactive periodic table from Grade 12 Computer Science to a hovercraft in Grade 12 engineering to countless really intriguing video games in Grade 11 computer science,” says Hofstatter. “The projects highlight the creativity, technical skill, and resilience of my students in getting really complex projects successfully past the finish line.”

The engineering robotics classroom at St. Michael's College School in Toronto.

The engineering robotics lab at St. Michael’s College School is located in the science wing of the school.

The pathway to and production of the CPT is also an example of 21st Century learning principles at work.

“Ultimately, I think this manner of learning is most interesting to students, but it also results in future entrepreneurs who will approach the marketplace with the skills (from research to design thinking to technical delivery to oral presentations to collaboration) and mindset that will ensure a win-win --- for them, for their company, and their customers,” he says. “The CPT in each of my courses is a fundamental part of my helping students to develop the critical skills that will set them apart for future success.”

Computer science (ICS3U) and engineering robotics are offered in Grade 11 and are also open to Grade 10 students with strong math and science skills.

St. Michael's College School students working on a video game in computer science class.

Culminating Project Tasks (CPT) are challenging projects that require students to draw on a variety of learning from across the entire year.

“The key here is for students to have strong analytical capabilities and a capacity to understand more abstract, complex topics and also have a more mature disposition for their age group,” says Hofstatter. “This year, regarding reach-ahead Grade 10 students, I had approximately 20 in computer science and 10 engineering. All of them did very well in their respective classes and one achieved the top grade overall in Grade 11 computer science!”

 “My classes might not be for everyone – a student needs to have self-drive and strong motivation, but for those who have that mindset, the ride is incredible and the opportunities are boundless,” he says. “My students are my inspiration – not only to come to campus every day, but to push myself to deliver cutting-edge experiences that they simply will not find at any other school.”

In lieu of the Basilian STEM awards, students with the top CPTs in each course presented their work, learnings, and challenges via video --- for this story. 

The goal of the CPT from each course is described below:

St. Michael's College School students working on VEX robotics in class.


GRADE 11 COMPUTER SCIENCE (ICS3U)

Focus: Software and programming skill acquisition before the culminating project begins.
CPT goal: Create an interactive, graphically animated video game.
Description: Students have full control over what type of game they wish to create and the limiting factor is their imagination.

This project challenges students technically and also from the perspective of creativity and story telling, aligned with the school’s Liberal Arts strength.

 

GR 12 COMPUTER SCIENCE (ICS4U)

Focus: Takes the knowledge acquired in Grade 11 computer science to the next level.
CPT goal: Students learn to deliver their CPT using Agile project delivery framework, a methodology that many technology teams pursue in large corporate environments.
Description: The structure of working, communicating, and delivery is collaborative and very different from how students normally complete project work. Their understanding of this framework provides students with a huge advantage, both in university and ultimately when they start to look for their first job.

  

GRADE 12 ENGINEERING ROBOTICS (TEJ4M)

Focus: Leverage the concepts of engineering design while integrating course knowledge from micro-mechanical, electrical, and computer engineering to craft robotic devices to solve specific challenges.
CPT goal: Students must define a worthy problem to solve, design, and engineer a solution, then use their technical skills to craft and assemble the robotic solution.
Description: The key to ensuring student engagement over multiple months is to allow them to have full creative control over the process, as long as there is sufficient complexity and feasibility. The engineering projects are equivalent to senior-year university engineering projects.

 

For Hofstatter, bringing his two worlds together into these classes is a gift.

“I feel extremely privileged to be able to do what I do at SMCS,” he says. “The students are enthusiastic in my classes and parental support has been phenomenal. These are key ingredients to make exceptional final products, but as students learn more, they typically push themselves further. I always tell students at the beginning of the year that they will be astonished at what they will have been able to produce by the end of the CPT, so long as they persevere and demonstrate grit through the tough patches.”

And the future promises even greater challenges, deeper learning, and meaningful experiences.

“This September I am excited to add another dimension to Grade 12 engineering by working with a vascular surgeon at Yale University,” says Hofstatter. “My students will be presented with a series of mini-cases outlining real-world problems that surgeons experience and we will craft engineering solutions that will be prototyped on CAD (Computer-Aided Design), built on a 3D printer, and then professionally presented back to Yale administration, similar to a pitch on Dragon’s Den. These types of experiences are difficult to gain at university and virtually impossible anywhere else, unless you’re a student at St Mike’s!”

Stay tuned.

PARENT TESTIMONIALS

“Recently, we had a Zoom call with extended family and everyone answered the question: If you could be ANYTHING in the world, what would it be? Our son’s definitive answer: A software engineer. And I WILL.

SO thank you!

Our son's confidence and passion in pursuing this career is fuelled by you and your class, particularly the real-world interactions and projects you enabled for the students."

Mother of a Grade 11 student

“Our son learned a great deal from you this past academic year in both theory and practice. I watched as he approached each assignment seriously putting in many extra hours of work. He tackled the year-end assignments with dedication, collaborative teamwork, and a spirit of excellence.

The practicums you lined up opened his eyes to the expectations and demands of engineers in the real world. The experience he gained from presenting his assignments to the CEO and engineers of Glen Dimplex was invaluable. I watched him mature with increased confidence as the academic year progressed. 

Thank you for enriching our son’s learning and encouraging his passion for engineering and technology.”

Mother of a Grade 11 student

RELATED LINKS:

Basilian STEM Award: A First

Learning for the future ‘by design’ via key Partnerships

Community and Learning Partnerships

Deep Learning Photo Gallery

National Post: St. Michael’s College School – Going beyond the classroom for real-world experiences