Common Challenges of Afterschool Robotics

I recently wrote a blog post about the power of robotics in middle school. Through programming and building a robotic system, especially as part of a large competition such as First Lego League, students authentically experience the engineering design process.

Last year, I helped organize four middle school Robotics Clubs that participated in GEAR and First Lego League competitions. While I believe robotics is an amazing component of STEM education, I wanted to highlight some of the challenges we faced in creating a quality after school program. I also outlined some possible solutions to help overcome these challenges, which I am implementing this year.  

Challenge #1: Programming Abilities

A major component to robotics is the ability to program the robot to act autonomously. For example, you can move the robot forward 10 rotations, turn left 90 degrees, lift an arm to pick up an object, and then return to base by repeating the commands in reverse. Many students quickly pick-up the programming, especially when using GUI-based software like LEGO that does not require learning a programming language.

However, I noticed that none of our middle school participants used sensors, which can add a dramatic advantage in a competition. For example, instead of relying on what I call "brute-force programming," you can have the robot move forward until it hits a wall or senses a change in color before performing an action. This provides an advantage because the robot can reliably respond to the environment. However, with rotations and degrees, small changes such as amount of battery life or different starting position can have big consequences. 

Any why did the students avoid sensors? I realized that it was intimidating to the coaches so they did not teach it! They were comfortable with the basic programming, but they did not trust they could teach the more advanced programming required to use sensors. Here are some ideas to overcome this barrier:

  • Additional training and mentoring of coaches to increase programming abilities.
  • Allow students to use self-paced tutorials such as those in the Lego software to learn these skills independently. Coaches should not feel obligated to understand everything, as robotics should be a student-drive process. 
  • Bring in engineering mentors to support teams. They can really help elevate understanding, but you need to make sure they can translate their knowledge to something a child can understand. 

Challenge #2: Low retention, especially for girls

Overall, Robotics Club was not a highly attended program. Most schools started with a fairly large group of 20 - 30 students, but participation declined throughout the year to a core group of 5 - 10 students. This was a tiny number compared to more popular clubs like Science Corps or Student Council. 

One explanation is that Robotics Club was solely focused on the competition, and students were bored after months of programming and building the same robot. Girls also left in high numbers. Some ideas to improve retention: 

  • Keep engagement and improve cohesion with team building activities such as through engineering design challenges.
  • Allow for social activities such as a pizza party as a reward for accomplishing a task.
  • Bring in a female mentor such as a female engineering student from a local university to support the team.
  • Provide clear roles and expectations for each member of the team, and allow less experienced members the opportunity to learn and grow their skills. Often advanced members take over everything, and the other members feel left out.  

Challenge #3: Real-world Connection

Robotics Club is pushed as a great program for the clear connection to real-world engineering. However, coaches need to explicitly make this connection for students, but many do not have the background or experience to do this. The coaches I worked with focused completely on the competition, but they did not take the time to step back and look at the bigger picture. Here are some ways coaches can help students make the connection of robotics to real-world applications and careers: 

  • Start each club meeting with a short video on robotics applications or engineering career pathways. One example here.
  • Bring a STEM professionals to talk with students or connect virtually via tools such as Skype or Nepris
  • Take students on a field trip to see engineering in action such as a factory using industrial robots. 
  • Have students brainstorm ways they can use robotics or programming to solve every day problems in their lives. Discuss popular apps on their phone or other technology they use every day. 

I hope that some of these suggestions for improving Robotics Clubs will be useful for your programs!