- July 15, 2015
OCOEE — James Jones grins as he walks into the large storage room attached to his Ocoee High School classroom. Storage shelves packed with LEGO MINDSTORMS sets line the room’s walls and stretch toward the ceiling. Everything is tidy and organized — and ready for a day full of classes.
Jones is a full-time robotics instructor at Ocoee High — one of only three schools in the district to offer such a curriculum. He’s also a nationally certified LEGO Education Academy and a teacher on the LEGO Education Advisory Panel. LEAP teachers collaborate with LEGO Education to create curriculum that enhances science, technology, engineering and math concepts. As a LEAP teacher, Jones also serves as a featured speaker and panelist at LEGO Education conferences, symposiums and workshops.
And, although his classroom may more closely resemble an aisle at Toys R Us than a training ground for tomorrow’s engineering superstars, he is adamant that the popular child’s building bricks — and the robotics concepts derived from their implementation — are among the best teaching tools available.
“Robotics is the ultimate STEM teaching tool,” he says. “With LEGOs, we can do rapid prototyping. We can have it now, and we can see that it doesn’t work. We can quickly build, rebuild and rebuild.
“LEGOs work both sides of the mind, and they go hand-in-hand with critical thinking,” Jones says. “No other toy does that.”
LOST IN SPACE
A single sentence Jones heard from his mother as a child still influences his life today.
“Can’t” never did anything.
It’s what he heard whenever he thought about quitting. And it’s a message he tries to instill in his students.
“One of my favorite quotes is from Thomas Edison, when someone asked him if he felt like he failed because it took him 3,000 attempts to create the light bulb,” Jones says. “He said, ‘I didn’t fail 3,000 times. I found 3,000 things that didn’t work.’
“With my students, I want them to know failure is an option; sometimes, it’s the only option,” Jones says. “But, that doesn’t mean you should stop. It just means you found things that didn’t work.”
Growing up in a small town in Illinois, Jones inherited the work ethic inherent in the farming life. As a child, he played with Tinkertoys and Lincoln Logs. He fell in love with robots when he first saw the TV classic, “Lost in Space,” and its B9 robot.
“I was a geek as a kid,” Jones says, smiling. “I took all my toys apart. I took appliances apart to see how they worked. I wanted to know what I didn’t know.”
Jones found a practical outlet for that curiosity in his eighth-grade science class, which included lessons on simple machines. Later, he learned to solder.
Following high school, Jones attended Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, was a science and music major and, ultimately, earned a master’s degree in opera music theater. Currently, in addition to his post at Ocoee High, he teaches voice at Valencia College.
Although seemingly polar-opposite interests, Jones insists the two have much in common. Both require patience, laser focus, strength in adversity and, sometimes, a little bit of luck.
“With (music), there are so many hours in rehearsals and practices,” Jones says. “At SIU, for my final recital, I had to memorize 24 songs in six languages. But, if it were easy, everyone would do it.”
Jones is now in his 20th year of teaching. Of those, 18 have been in the field of robotics. He is one of the first teachers to incorporate the LEGO MINDSTORMS kits into his classroom.
Since then, Jones has won several teaching awards, including the Disney Teacheriffic award (three times) and Outstanding Program and Warner Awards from Epsilon Pi Tau.
This year, some of Ocoee High’s advanced robotics students are attempting to build one of Jones’ most ambitious projects to date — a machine that can sort LEGO bricks by size, variation and color — made from LEGOs, of course. It’s a project that Jones doesn’t even know will ever work. But, in his class, the journey is just as important as the destination. Like professional engineers, all of his students are required to keep log books — which ultimately document the long, winding road that leads students to the end of their projects.
“Nobody has all the answers, but we’re working together to find solutions,” he says. “I want them to become solution-finders. It’s the ultimate in critical thinking. It’s not out of the box. I’m saying that there is no box.”
Jones was among teachers who helped write the Florida Standards curriculum for a four-year course, titled, “Applied Robotics.” In the course, students will begin by learning a history of robotics. They’ll learn basic programming and even have to make a presentation on electronics.
Furthermore, there is no free play.
“Nobody ever free-built their way into a robot,” Jones says.
Of course, all of this would matter little if the skills Jones taught couldn’t lead to success in the real world.
“Bill Gates said after mobile technology, the next big tech trend is robotics,” Jones says. “It’s a $17 billion industry, and it’s growing so fast. No car manufacturer uses humans to paint or weld cars now. It’s all done by robots, which can paint at the micron-level. It’s the golden age of robots.”
In addition to his work at Ocoee High, Jones spends time sharing his knowledge with other educators at a conferences and workshops throughout the country. He often gives up his weekends to do so, but he says it’s more than worth the sacrifice.
“Sometimes, I will leave school on Friday afternoon, drive straight to the conference, then drive back and be back in the classroom Monday morning,” Jones says. “But every trip is worth it. It’s not enough to just sit in the classroom. We have to start collaborating. We have to go beyond even our district and get more people involved.”
Jones also owns and operates iBrick Academy, a company that offers after-school and summer-camp programs that utilize LEGOs to teach the same STEM concepts to children ages 3 to 18. The academy now hosts programs in 12 different locations throughout the area, including one in Windermere.
“I’ve never taken a penny (from the business),” he says. “Whatever we make goes right back into the company. We want kids to be doing this instead of playing video games. It’s important.”
Jones credits Ocoee High Principal William Floyd for his commitment to robotics and engineering.
“I drive 45 minutes each way to come here, because I get to teach robotics all day long,” Jones says. “Mr. Floyd and Orange County Public Schools have been so supportive of this vision. I think I have the coolest job in the world.”
Contact Michael Eng at [email protected].
James Jones’ iBrick Academy offers a variety of after-school and summer-camp programs that utilize LEGOs to teach STEM concepts.
For more information about iBrick Academy, visit its website, ibrickacademy.com.