The push for STEM curriculum in schools is turning students into robot-building marvels.
Union High School’s Ubotics team built the LEGO Mindstorm robot, which is used in the club’s outreach programs to mentor elementary students.
It’s an early Saturday morning at Memorial High School. The gymnasium is filled with student teams with names such as the Flaming Watermelons, the Lego Ladies, I Chew Coffee and the Carnivorous Vegetarians. It seems more like walking into a school carnival than a scientific competition.
Welcome to the world of robotics, the latest darling of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. labor market has 5 million job openings, and 15 percent of those are in the tech field. A growing number of jobs require STEM education, and there are a limited number of candidates to fill these positions. This shortage has led to a collective effort nationwide to incorporate more STEM learning in schools.
Robotics is STEM’s shining star. It provides visual, immediate results to students’ work, often with thrilling and active results. It also is a unique combination of many STEM-related skills and concepts.
“STEM curriculum focuses not only on the four disciplines in the acronym, but also highlights the wonderful cross-disciplinary realms that encompass so much of the world we face today, while building world-class problem-solving skills,” says Xan Black, program director for the Tulsa Regional STEM Alliance. “When students build robots together, they learn to persist in problem solving by becoming very good at critical and creative thinking.”
According to Black, many schools are incorporating robotics programs into their curriculum.
“When students build robots, they learn relevant skills — public speaking, coding, troubleshooting and, most importantly, teamwork,” she says. “All of these are taught in a way that fosters excitement and enthusiasm for their accomplishments.”
The various robotic teams will enter some sort of competition in which the participants must build robots to accomplish certain tasks.
“Some of the parameters might include height, weight, materials used, time constraints or space constraints for the robots to work,” Black says. “Each competition is different, so the robots that are built vary in complexity and in the missions they must accomplish. Some robots can do everything from hitting a target with a Frisbee to stacking recycling bins.”
Robotics in elementary schools
University School, a private school for grades K-8, is one of several schools in the Tulsa area that offers robotics to elementary students as an extracurricular activity.
Reade Rex, a fourth-grader at University School, joined the robotics club at the beginning of the school year. The club meets after school and even on the weekends.
“I signed up because it sounded pretty awesome to build robots,” Rex says, “but it has been just as awesome to figure out how to solve problems and learn how to work as a team.”
Rex is a member of the CHUDE team, which won second place in Strategy and Innovation at the state competition this past December with its invention of a compactor that keeps plastic bags from jamming recyclers.
According to Reade’s mother, Nancy Rink, it is not just about building robots.
“It has been exciting to see the changes in Reade since he started the program,” she says. “At first, he was really frustrated because he didn’t understand a lot of the concepts, but the hands-on way they teach robotics has been a great lesson for him to learn how to solve problems on his own.”
By the way, CHUDE is an acronym for each team member’s favorite word.
And what are those words?
“COD (‘Call of Duty’), Hi, Unicorn, Death and Engineers,” Rex laughs.
Middle school and swimming robots
If building a robot seems like a daunting task, how about designing one that operates underwater?
For Memorial Junior High School’s Gateway to Technology pre-engineering class, it was no sweat. In fact, not only did students build a robot with underwater speed, maneuverability and retrieval skills, they also won first place in the SeaPerch Robotic Challenge.
SeaPerch is an innovative underwater robotics program sponsored by the Office of Naval Research.
“This competition is a great example of the way we partner with other STEM-rich institutions, industry, government and community organizations to accomplish our mission,” Black says.
“We partnered with the United States Naval Academy and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which brought in a team from Annapolis to train area educators to build SeaPerch, so that they could in turn work with students to build their own underwater remotely operated vehicle.”
The USNA and NOAA provided the tools for teachers to help students build remote operated vehicles from kits they provided, which were comprised of low-cost, easily accessible parts. They follow a curriculum that teaches basic engineering and science concepts with a marine engineering theme.
Stanley is the award-winning underwater robot designed by the Memorial Junior High Robotics Team. Last year he even made an appearance on KOTV Channel 6.
“The SeaPerch competition encourages students to explore naval architecture and marine and ocean engineering concepts,” Black says. “The students are exposed to all the exciting careers possible in marine engineering.”
High school robotics and beyond
Union High School’s robotics team is aptly named Ubotics. Formed by a group of ambitious students in 2011, Ubotics has won several prestigious awards and made it to the national level of the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) Championships several times. The program now has over 50 students.
“Union has a more comprehensive approach to STEM than most schools,” says Tiffany American Horse, computer science instructor and Ubotics co-sponsor. “We have adopted a district-wide STEM philosophy that encourages students to inquire, explore and problem-solve using our STEM design model.”
Ubotics participates in the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) every spring. After the “game,” or challenge, is revealed in January, the teams have six weeks to design and build a fully functional 120-pound robot. During those six weeks, experienced mentors come to the school to offer guidance as the team tackles the real-life engineering challenges of building their robot.
“Once the robot is built, it is locked into a plastic bag marked by a serial-numbered zip tie until we arrive at the competition,” American Horse says. “After the robot has been inspected, students have only a few hours to make last-minute adjustments to prepare for competition.”
In FRC competitions, it’s not just about building the robot. Teams have to scout other robots, market their robot and get to know the competition. The teams compete in a bracket-style playoff format in alliances of three versus three.
“Students are graded by their robot’s competition performance, award submissions, robot design and on the FRC’s philosophy’s of ‘cooperitition’ (a combination of cooperation and competition) and ‘gracious professionalism,’ which means competing teams must work together to score a bonus,” American Horse adds.
In addition to the work they do during the school year, Ubotics students also mentor hundreds of kids during the district-wide summer camps for coding and robotics.
“Dean Kamen, the founder of FIRST, describes it best,” American Horse explains. “It’s the hardest fun they’ve ever had.”
Outside the schools
Robotics programs aren’t just flourishing in the schools. Organizations such as the Girl Scouts have jumped on the robotics bandwagon, as well.
“A child’s learning does not stop at the school door,” Black says. “Girls Scouts is a wonderful place for STEM programming like robotics. These types of informal learning settings are often interest-driven and not as constrained by time as in a formal setting like school.”
The Girl Scouts of Eastern Oklahoma’s robotics program began in 2011 with two teams. By 2015, the program grew into 16 teams and 85 participants.
“Our goal was to increase opportunities for girls to participate in STEM-focused activities,” says Lauren Zeligson, GSEOK communications/PR specialist. “Each team is coached by a Girl Scout volunteer and meets weekly from August through October in preparation for the competitions that take place in November and December.”
Kathryn Davis-Robb, program director for GSEOK, says they are helping Girl Scouts imagine a career that pays well and lets them be creative, all while changing the world for the better.
Most recently, two of the GSEOK teams won several awards at a local competition. The LEGO Ladies won first place for their motorized creation that turns plastic bags into jump ropes, which they named “Sir Cranks-a-Lot.” Another team, the LEGO Queens, took home the second-place Robot Performance Award and first-place Championship Award. The LEGO Queens then advanced to the state championship.
In March, the Girl Scout Troop 411 “Supergirls” team took their page-turning robot to the White House Science Fair. The group of kindergarten girls fashioned their robot from LEGOs and designed it to help people suffering from arthritis or paralysis.
According to Black, these robotics programs will help prepare students for the real world.
She says, “The STEM theories coupled with the teamwork, presentation and sportsmanship skills learned in these programs will serve them well throughout their life journeys.”