Robotics is a Drug?
First off, what is STEM? Drugs get all sorts of fancy acronyms, so why not education? Well, as far as currently over-hyped education trends go “STEM” is arguably at the top of the list. But when you take away the hype and look for the substance then what is left? In this case, frankly, a lot. As most of you know, STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. The acronym does not do the term justice though, because STEM is really about the effective integration and authentic application of these topics to real-world problems. This type of integration and application of subjects is increasingly called for throughout the next generation science standards (NGSS), common core state standards (CCSS), and the SBA performance tasks.
Where Do These Whipper-Snappers Get This Stuff?
One way that schools are getting kids hooked on STEM is through after-school robotics programs. Kids come because robots sound cool and they’re curious, but they usually stay because of the sense of community that the hard work, collaboration, and teamwork fostered by the group. At the elementary level, this means the FIRST LEGO League, where students work with the NXT and EV3 LEGO robotics systems to program robots to complete a variety of challenges on an official mat complete with obstacles. These tasks lend themselves to teaching teamwork and the elementary engineering standards from the NGSS.
The robotics clubs scale all of the way up to the end of high school level where hardwiring, programming, and even soldering can be involved. This can mean turning a pile of metal, wires, and wheels into a robot that plays team basketball, launches Frisbees at a target, or even simulates rescuing a trapped person. Through all of the “fun” math and science though is the heart of the program which teaches effective cooperation, compromise, and communication. These are important skills for any job in today’s workplace, and especially marketable in a STEM career field.
You Mean the Teachers are In on This Too?
One more place that STEM is being applied via robotics is integration into the curriculum. Since robots depend upon sensors, electronics, and computing to interact with their environment, there is an endless list of potential applications under the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math umbrella. Sensors can be used to measure and graph a variety of inputs, e.g. temperature, distance, speed, sound, touch, etc. Math is critical for correctly programming the robots to complete simple tasks–whether students are measuring distances, calculating speeds, or working with unit conversions. Identify a problem and then put the students to work on producing a solution if you want to start integrating engineering. The technology is pervasive throughout. As you can see, there are numerous opportunities for real-life applications of the CCSS, NGSS, and a variety of 21st century skills.
Do I Need Robots to Teach Science Now?
Of course, robotics are not a required component of STEM. Plenty of good instruction in these areas happens without even the mention of robotics. However, our task as educators is to figure out how to effectively leverage the best tools at our disposal in order to engage our students in critical subjects. And we are competing with Xbox, the internet, smartphones, reality TV, and the best/worst that pop culture has to offer either now or in the very near future. If not robotics, then we need something like programming, electronics, video editing, 3D printing, or anything else that grabs our students’ attention. The materials of course don’t have to be fancy, shiny, or expensive. One of the most popular lessons that I taught last year involved engineering with just simple and plain old-fashioned popsicle sticks, clothes pins, rubber bands, etc. The students were surprisingly into this activity, and many of them had never even seen a clothespin before the lesson. Once we have students’ attention through whatever creative means necessary, then we can open their eyes to what we already know to be a critical part of their education: the basics of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.
Video for Those That are Curious
This is a late addition to this post, but it occurred to me that a video my district created about our robotics program may be of interest to people reading this article: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PwpmGwk_HQI.
To learn more about FIRST robotics please visit http://www.usfirst.org/ or https://www.firstwa.org/ (based in Kent, WA). To learn more about the Next Generation Science Standards please visit http://www.nextgenscience.org/next-generation-science-standards. Also, here’s an article I wrote on the topic of STEM. Please post your thoughts below. What are your ideas for creative STEM integration?