HomeBlocksFront-GridLa Cañada Unified District Praises Robotics Program, Cafeteria Initiative

La Cañada Unified District Praises Robotics Program, Cafeteria Initiative

The La Cañada Unified School District Board of Education recently heard about a new robotics program at Palm Crest Elementary, and an overarching annual report from the district’s Food Services Department.
PCR Principal David Santiago-Speck shared a PowerPoint presentation to the Board at its March 28 meeting, outlining the school’s initiative to add a STEAM program focused on robotics and coding. PCR’s STEAM lab instructor Jeanine Benz spearheaded the program to create a curriculum that allows first- through sixth-grade students explore robotics at varying levels.
“Robotics is a stairstep curriculum, where students are building, programming investigating, communicating the transmission of motion, sensors, transfer of energy, [and] all the great scientific models through LEGO robotics as well as some other robotics pieces,” said Santiago-Speck.
Along with problem-solving skills, Santiago-Speck pointed out that a valuable lesson students learn is embracing failure.
“I like to say that failure is the first attempt in learning, and so you’re learning something new every time your robot doesn’t work,” said Santiago-Speck.
First graders start with little robots, called BeeBots, which give students a chance to start with the simplest way of programming without using a device or computer. They simply push on arrows and program where the robot should go.
Students are then introduced to LEGO robotics, where they learn about motors and hubs, gears, pulleys and belts, motion sensors and algorithms. Using the same LEGO device, the second graders build complex models, and Santiago-Speck said that students are having fun with it. The exercises also teach patience and the resilience to keep going if the effort doesn’t go well the first time.
Students in the third grade also use the LEGO device to generate curiosity with science, while doing hands-on experimenting and investigating, like how to make an object move, explaining friction and pull force.
Fourth and fifth graders use the LEGO EV3 Mindstorm, and students are taught to program to move the robot forward and backward, make turns and control the arms. Students also use the EV3 to accomplish tasks using touch, ultrasonic and color sensors.
Sixth graders, meanwhile, are tasked to complete a series of specific end-of-year challenges, one of which requires a group of four choreographing and coding the EV3 to dance to the “Hokey Pokey” within just 30 minutes.
As Santiago-Speck outlined each part of the curriculum, he presented examples of students executing the tasks and exercises to the Board.
“I want to thank Jeanine for helping me get all of the video footage that she’s acquired throughout the years, and I’m really happy that this program is up and running [and] that the students are able to access it,” said Santiago-Speck.
When the students are not doing robotics, they are coding.
“Robotics is just one component of it,” said Santiago-Speck. “They learn to problem solve, sequence and break down problems into smaller sections.”
Students in first through third grade use ScratchJr to create their own codes and learn how to design their own stories, apps and games. They learn about patterns, loops, conditionals, algorithms, debugging and sequencing.
“I think a lot of this is where the art part of STEAM comes in, because they’re actually expressing themselves artistically, through the creation of the code,” said Santiago-Speck.
Students in grades 4-6 use Google CS First and Scratch to continue designing their own stories, apps and games, and can create up to eight multilevel games.

The La Cañada Unified School District Food Services’ Department shared some new initiatives to the Board at its March 28 meeting, which included a new Point Of Sale, or POS system to make meal transactions faster. – Photo courtesy LCUSD Food Services

Director of Fiscal Services Gretchen Bergstrom presented the Food Services’ Department annual report to the Board. With her was the new Director of Dining Services, Mike Schlotman, who has been assigned to the district from Chartwells Schools Dining Services.
“He’s been with us for a couple of weeks, and has jumped in with both feet in ordering, planning menus, working on efficiencies, and is just already proven to be quite an asset,” said Bergstrom.
Schlotman who graduated from La Cañada High School in 1993, introduced himself to the Board as a 30-year veteran in the hospitality industry. His wife is the health clerk for Paradise Canyon Elementary.
“I’m happy to be back working in my own community, where I live,” said Schlotman.
Bergstrom continued her presentation, which highlighted a new point-of-sale system, or POS, that they have implemented to make meal transactions faster and easier. Another feature added to improve communication and accounts allows families to check their student’s balance and transfer money between students.
With the introduction of universal meals from the state — which requires public school districts with students in TK through 12th grade to provide two meals free of charge (breakfast and lunch), during each school day to students requesting a meal, regardless of their free or reduced-price meal eligibility — the volume of students getting lunch has tripled.
“In the past, before universal meals, the kids would come in and they would key punch their number into a system,” said Bergstrom. “It worked with the volume we had, but unfortunately moving forward, we knew that it was not going to be efficient, and it was going to create long lines.”
Now, about 300-400 students are able to move through their lunch lines within 10 minutes, said Bergstrom.
“The kids seem to love it,” said Bergstrom. “They feel like they almost have their own little credit cards.”
Last school year, the department was also able to partner with special education and have students get hands on experience by helping in the cafeteria.
“One student is restocking the shelves, another one is prepping food, and they really get to be part of a team and they just love it,” said Bergstrom.
Bergstrom also touched on meal volume and compared how many daily meals the district served before and after the pandemic. The meal volume, pre-pandemic, was at about 884 meals, but with the universal meals program, lunches have increased to more than 1,600 per day. Since breakfast was introduced last year, the district is serving about 600, said Bergstrom.
On average, the total number of daily meals being served is 2,200.
The department is now working to bring in some new equipment and create a long-term plan for each cafeteria. Bergstrom said that they are looking into a dishwasher grant, which will provide $40,000 for each school site to buy a commercial dishwasher.
“And the whole point of that is to get rid of this single-use wares,” said Bergstrom. “We would [want] to move in that direction [to] better the environment.”
LCUSD Board President Josh Epstein asked to confirm if all food is cooked at the high school site only, which Bergstrom agreed with, for the most part.
“The food is prepared at the central kitchen, which is the high school, and then each morning is taken to the elementary schools,” said Bergstrom. “With that said, things like hamburgers, hot dogs and pizzas are all prepared at the elementary schools. … Things like pastas, rice or other things that are mass produced, are done at the central kitchen and sent over for the elementary schools to then put together.”
Board member Joe Radabaugh asked how the department can keep ideas fresh and come up with new food choices for students.
“It’s a little bit of observing, taking feedback and you want to see what they’re grabbing at and what they’re rejecting, what they’re throwing out,” said Schlotman.
Schlotman said that it is widely known that most children are not fond of vegetables and fruits, so they are always trying to find recipes that hide what kids don’t like.
The state’s implementation of the universal meals program requires students to select a milk, fruit and vegetable item when they check out food at their respective school cafeterias. To keep food out of waste bins, the district offers a “second chance bucket” for students who don’t want an item they are required to take. Other students are then able to take an additional item from the bucket.
“Keep up the good work and I look forward to hearing about it again next year,” said Radabaugh.

First published in the April 11 print issue of the Outlook Valley Sun.


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