Robotics never really appealed to me. During college, I had a couple of opportunities to program and build robotic systems. I was uninterested and let others do the work. I just didn't get what all the excitement was about.
When it came to working in STEM education, my first job was to develop middle school robotics programs. I was honestly not that excited. In some ways, I felt that robotics perpetuates stereotypes that engineering is only about tinkering and fixing. Robotics is the dominate and many times only example of engineering to students, but it can be a narrow definition of the wide world of engineering. Also, a Robotics Club tends to only attract students already inclined towards engineering and doesn't easily attract a wider population of students.
But then last summer, I went to a STEM training program for teachers to learn about the Project Lead The Way engineering curriculum including VEX robotics. I was nervous because the other teachers immediately had high expectations of me once they found out I was an engineer. I didn't expect to meet their standards, as I didn't have any direct training in robotics or programming. I also expected the training to be boring and have a weak connection to current engineering technology. Can you sense my excitement to be there?
But as the title suggests, I was in for a surprise. After getting through worksheets on gear ratios and mechanisms, we started to build. For once, I was the team leader on building and programming the robot. I was nervous at first, but I soon felt an immense feeling of accomplishment when I built and programmed a claw to open and close. Wow, I had done that! What else can I do? Can the claw pick up a block? Can I stack several blocks? The possibilities are endless! Check out my final assembly with my awesome teammate.
Looking around the room, I noticed the same change of attitude in the other teachers. Many came in with limited STEM background, but they left the training with a new confidence. They felt like yes, I can do engineering too! And that is the power of robotics. Once students get over the initial hurdle of learning the basics of programming and building, they can quickly feel a sense of accomplishment and a boost in confidence. Robotics in the real-world may only be a part of the wide world of engineering, but participating in robotics allows students to authentically experience the engineering design process.
This past year, I have worked with four middle schools to create an after school Robotics Club. I experienced the many challenges of forming a team, but I also saw the great benefits to the students. If students participate in a serious robotics program that includes a competition such as First Lego League, I believe they will experience the following benefits.
Real-world Engineering Skills
Students will be responsible for using the engineering design process to build and program a robot to complete a mission. Working in a team, they will learn communication, critical thinking, problem solving, computer programming, logic, and teamwork. These skills translate directly into top skills required for a STEM career. Competing in a robotics competition adds an extra layer of time management and working under stress that will greatly benefit students for college and career.
Making STEM Cool
Today's schools have become very centered around sports like football and basketball. However, there is new trend to bring the same excitement to academics. Robotics is the perfect way to incorporate engineering with a sports competition. Many robotics competitions such as First Lego League, BEST, First Tech Challenge, and others are held in auditoriums and gyms with a roaring crowd cheering on teams. These experiences will leave students with the lasting impression that engineering is cool. And unlike football, robotics leads to a field where everyone has a real chance to become a pro! For those in Texas, UIL has even jumped on this trend to officially sponsor robotics as a UIL program!
Overall, robotics is a powerful STEM tool that is making a positive impact in our schools. I encourage all students to participate and take advantage of this great opportunity. However, robotics in the classroom still faces many challenges that I will address in a later post. Stay tuned!