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Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto

By MARGO HORNER, The Mirror

Standing at the head of the classroom with his gray hair and white lab coat, surrounded by robots, colored lights and swirling science experiments, Ted Gamble looks a little more like a mad scientist than a third-grade teacher.

He makes wide gestures with his hands and vivid expressions behind his glasses while he talks to the class. Classical music plays quietly in the background.

“Education needs to be stimulating. It needs to be vivacious. It needs to involve all the senses,” said Gamble, 58.

The students in Gamble’s class at Meredith Hill Elementary don’t seem to mind that Gamble is a little eccentric. In fact, they seem rather enthralled by their teacher, listening intently, eagerly raising their hands to participate and applauding enthusiastically.

There’s certainly plenty to be distracted by in the classroom: A solar system spinning overhead, ribbons swirling above fans, blinking lights, robots. But Gamble easily manages to hold the students’ attention by incorporating fun experiments into his lessons and getting the robots involved.

The children were so focused during a lesson on Thursday, they didn’t even appear to notice when a bell rang for recess. No one jumped up. No one squirmed in their seat. They continued to pay attention to the teacher while seconds of their recess ticked away.

There are five robot helpers in Gamble’s classroom — four boys and one girl. Gamble was inspired to create his first robot nearly 30 years ago after watching the original “Star Wars” movie. His creations have continued to grow increasingly sophisticated.

Today, Gamble’s robots perform a variety of functions including taking attendance, reading stories, administering spelling and multiplication tests and reciting the daily lunch menu. One sings the “Happy Birthday” song.

One robot, THX-T4, is multilingual and greets the class each day in several different languages.

Gamble enters THX-T4’s script into a computer before class each morning. The robot wears a Meredith Hill staff member identification card that reads “Robbie Robot.”

Gamble built all the robots himself out of a variety of common objects such as a car cup-holder, dog food dishes, fans, plastic piping and lights from Ikea.

Some work by remote or computer. One claps on.

Having robots read stories and administer tests is helpful because it allows Gamble to focus more on what’s going on in the classroom, he said.

He can walk around the room and look over the students’ shoulders to be sure they’re keeping up.

“I can make sure that they’re actually following along,” he said. “If I’m up front reading, I can’t watch them.”

The robots, the colors, the lights and the movement that is a trademark of Gamble’s classroom keeps his students motivated to come to school and learn, he said.

“I just think a classroom should be like a movie studio that has lots of interesting things going on all the time,” he said.

“I think if they’re interested, if they’re excited about coming to school, you’re not going to have discipline problems.”

Plus, getting the students comfortable with robots is preparing them for the future, when Gamble predicts robots will increasingly become a part of everyday life.

“I think it’s the future. I think it’s the coming thing,” he said. “I think they’ll be interacting with humans more and more.”

Meredith Hill principal Cindy Kelsey said the students in Gamble’s class seem to enjoy the robots.

“It is fun for the kids to have the robots read them stories for the read-aloud,” she said. “There’s some children who are in that classroom who are ready for those kinds of things.”

The interesting science props in Gamble’s class encourage students to think outside the box and use higher-level thinking skills, Kelsey said.

“He has a passion about science, which I love,” Kelsey said of Gamble. “He is very unique.”

Contact Margo Horner: mhorner@fedwaymirror.com or (253) 925-5565.

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