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Pillow students work together to design robots in new class

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From left, William Lan, Justin Hausner, James McBryde and Joe Bender build a robot in Pillow Academy’s new engineering design and robotics class. This year, the class is comprised of juniors and seniors. The course is designed to provide students with hands-on experience designing and programming robots. 

Marietta Branch says Pillow Academy’s new engineering design and robotics class provides students with a variety of life skills.

“It gives a creative outlet to those children who are interested in science and technology, and it allows them the ability to expand on their creativity,” said Branch, who is head of Pillow’s Science Department.

She said the class also develops a child’s determination and teaches problem-solving skills and how to precisely follow directions.

“That’s a part of the scientific method,” she said “Being able to follow those instructions and if it doesn’t work, then making the correction.”

The elective class is open to juniors and seniors and is taught by John Banusiewicz, who also teaches algebra and Advanced Placement physics.

The school began researching engineering design and robotics programs last year.

“It was a very thought-out, planned process,” said Branch. “We looked at other schools and the programs they used and took that knowledge and implemented it.”

Over the summer, Banusiewicz visited other schools and looked at their robotics programs and networked with another teacher at a school with a strong robotics program.

After deciding on the curriculum with Branch, Banusiewicz began studying and developing the course in a way that would best benefit the school.

“We are trying to give the students foundational knowledge with hands-on experience,” Banusiewicz said. “Soon many aspects of modern life are going to involve robotics in some way or another. I want our students to have the basic skills and understanding to control the robots.”

The course provides students with hands-on experience designing and programming robots. Students work in teams to build, program and test robots to complete increasingly complex tasks throughout the year. Students also get an introduction to mechanical engineering through the building process and computer coding in the programming process.

Engineering design and robotics

Building their robot are, from left, Noah Lary, Matthew Jefcoat, Gabe Wilson and Nelson Hodges.

At the completion of each build, students present their robots to the class with a live demonstration.

“It’s a different way of thinking,” Banusiewicz said. “It’s something that you really don’t get in any other type of class, so I think it’s a real unique opportunity.”

The students work out of an instruction book to create their robotic designs.

“There’s still a lot of problem-solving that goes into that,” said Banusiewicz. “We finished our first base design of a robot with four wheels, but every single group ran into some sort of problem. Some problems were the same, and some problems were unique.”

Even though there’s a book with instructions, the students have to figure out how to build their robots on their own. If something goes wrong during the build, they have to identify the problem themselves.

“I don’t have all the answers. They don’t have all the answers. The book doesn’t have all the answers. They need to figure out what’s going on and solve it,” Banusiewicz said. “That’s really the meat of the class. Nothing’s going to really go according to plan, and they need to overcome that and still complete the task, which translates to all walks of life, engineering or not.”

He said the class of 20 recently did that during the first robot build.

“It’s been interesting to see, even though they are working from a book, the different approaches that each group takes to solving the problem,” he said. “Those skills that they are learning are going to translate to anything in life. They are going to have to work as a team to solve a problem at some point, so they are getting experience that is invaluable.”

Banusiewicz has divided up the class into groups of four.

“I assign the groups, so they are not just working with friends,” he said. “I assign based on different kinds of personalities. They work in teams with people that they might not hang out with outside of school. They all are on board with the goal, and they all are falling naturally into roles.”

He said some students in each group are better at construction, some are better at organization and some are better at controlling the robot.

“Everyone’s already kind of forming their own roles and contributing in their own way,” he said.

Banusiewicz said the students are enjoying the robotics class.

“They love it. They walk right in and go to work,” he said. “It’s just been really good to see. There’s never a problem motivating them to get started; they are always ready to go.”

Kayla Brown, a Pillow Academy senior, said she was excited to learn that the school was offering an engineering design and robotics class.

Engineering design and robotics

Pillow seniors Kayla Brown, left, and Kaylee Jones both said they were excited to learn that the school was offering an engineering design and robotics class this year.

“I’m a robotics type of girl anyway,” she said. “I like building and making things and seeing how it works.”

Brown said the class is really fun.

“This is most definitely something I wanted to do,” Brown said.

Kaylee Jones, a PA senior who is in the same group as Brown, said she’s always had an interest in engineering.

“When I was little, I used to play with Legos all the time. Building things is just one thing I’ve always liked to do,” she said.

Both Brown and Jones agreed that teamwork is an important aspect of the class.

“Teamwork is a big part of this,” said Brown. “The teamwork is amazing. It’s a chance for us to get closer as classmates.”

The school said Pillow Academy alumni Ashley and Solon Scott were instrumental in adding the engineering design and robotics curriculum. Solon Scott received a degree in engineering from Mississippi State University in 1984. He said he wanted the program to help students see math and science in action. 

“It is one thing to learn how to work equations in a book or on a computer, but actually building and programming a robot to work translates the bookwork into a practical application,” he said. “This class will help teach our students how to work as a team on a project creating something from beginning to end. Engineers need more build projects like this to help them transfer what they learn to the real world. I hope Pillow continues the robotics class and expands into other builds as well.”

Pillow Academy said the Scotts have been avid supporters of Pillow and provided the initial gift to create a state-of-the-art middle and high school science lab and the STEM program in the elementary school. In 2017, Pillow named the lab the “Scott Science Lab.”

The class was also funded by Pillow Academy Plus, a fund where patrons donate for improvements in academics, physical improvements and technology.

The class was endorsed and supported by Pillow’s new head of school, Barrett Donahoe.

Engineering design and robotics

From left are engineering design and robotics students Eric Cortes, Jackson Hodges, Dalton Elmore and Josh Collins.

“We’ve got the right people in place, we’ve got the support, and it’s going to be a great program,” said Donahoe. “We’re excited about it.”

While the robotics program at Pillow is just starting, the school hopes to soon implement a Robotics Club and that next semester the engineering design and robotics class can begin participating in statewide competitions.

“There is so much room to grow,” said Banusiewicz. “We are really scratching the surface here.”

Banusiewicz said the class offers an opportunity for students who may not stand out in the traditional academic environment to really thrive.

“We feel like every one of our students is incredibly talented in something, so we try to harness as many and foster as many of those different avenues as we can,” he said. “With the band, with the art, now with robotics, and, of course, traditional classroom learning, we want everyone to really realize the potential of their talents and use that going forward to make the world a better place.”

• Contact Ruthie Robison at 581-7235 or

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