COSBY, TennesseeTina Williamson knows what it's like to grow up in the mountain country of East Tennessee. The scenery is breathtakingthe Great Smoky Mountains sit right outside her classroombut poverty is profound, and few young people grow up with advantages like home computers. At Cosby High School, where she heads the math department, Williamson is no stranger to the challenges of Appalachia. Cosby High is also her alma mater.
To engage her predominately rural students to study trigonometry and pre-calculus, as well as the relationship between math and electricity, Williamson uses a subject that's as familiar as ants at a picnic. She has students in grades 10-12 create their own "bugs," harnessing the technology of robotics to mimic insect behaviors.
"They learn to build robots that imitate real bugs," Williamson explains. Their "cybugs" incorporate light and touch sensors, which allow them to mimic such insect behaviors as phototropism (turning toward light, like a moth toward a flame) or obstacle avoidance (navigating with the agility of picnic ants).