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Robots: A Fun Context for Learning

I am so excited about the recent Beaver County STEM Education Advocacy Coalition (long name – but it explains what we do) meeting. The meeting focused on assembling the numerous people in the county using robotics to share ideas and inspire those that have yet to foray into this technological jungle gym. As you read through the presenter list – consider these insights. 

Robots are not just for kids into robots. They introduce kids to electricity, electrical engineering, math, physics, mechanical engineering, machining, welding, industrial manufacturing, sensors and measurement – in other words they introduce kids to those places where jobs are growing. 

Robots are not just for technology teachers.  The Chemistry and Environmental Science teacher can use the Playtus LLC airboat with on board sensors to help with water testing of streams and lakes. The math teacher can use robots to teach ratios as students play with gears on a Mindstorm or three dimensional graphs as they play with the Gromba.  

We know, through studies of how the brain learns, that STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) concepts need to be connected and applied to context.  Robots are a context, a wonderful fun context.

What are the ways your student(s) would benefit from exposure to educational robots?

Presenters at the BC STEM meeting included…

  • ·       Ray Russell of RoPro Design describing the relationship he has built with Central Valley High School providing internships and his team of engineers, welders, electronics specialists and innovators available to the students of the BotsIQ competition team.
  • ·       the GROMA Robot (a gutted Roomba) with a mission control center teaching icon based programming, coordinate systems, graphs, artificial intelligence, flow chart programming to kids as young as ten.
  • ·       Jason McKenna (a K-8 Gifted Teacher at Hopewell Area School District) runs a middle school robotics challenge held at the IU each year and credited a long standing relationship with the directors at CMU’s Robotics Academy who have worked to develop it and the support the teachers involved.   
  • ·       William Fiedler (Technology Education Instructor, Central Valley School District) brought students and competition robots you could put your hands as students described the design, wiring, welding, and calculations that went into building these 15 pound robots for the regional BotsIQ competition. Standing behind the local competition is the regional host (Westmoreland County Community College), designer (a high school robotics curriculum based on the National Curriculum Standards and Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) mechanical engineering), supporters (the National Tooling and Machining Association (NTMA) and National Association of Manufacturers), and a phenomenal committed teacher, school district, and school administration.
  • ·       Abhinav Valada and Paul Scerri from Platypus, LLC brought the center piece (literally – a four foot long airboat robot in the center of our meeting table and a short video describing some of the phenomenal uses for this small robot – exploring contaminated waters after severe flooding (you can put a camera on the boat and receive live data from its smart phone onboard computer), measuring temperature fluctuations near volcanic activity on a lake, even checking water depth to complete annual inspections of the locks and dams along Pittsburgh rivers. The low cost robot is available for use in student lab work and ongoing projects of water testing. 
  • ·       Sarah Kerin, the Robert Morris University STEM Outreach coordinator, announced the good news that they are again hosting the FIRST Tech Challenge regional competition and that teams are  not open to 8th graders. The FIRST Tech Challenge is a robotics competition for a team of ten 8th-12th graders to design, build, and program their robots to compete in an alliance format against other teams.
  • ·       Gordon Walton, the tournament director for the FIRST Lego League announced through email the Scrimmages and Regional competitions available to the eight Beaver County teams (many run by scout troops or parent led).  We were thrilled to hear the National Robotics Engineering Center in Lawrenceville, PA will again host Championships. FIRST is another robotics competition that requires hosts, designers, supporters and committed teachers (or coaches). Students are further required to submit research and go in depth investigating a real world problem in which technology and robotics may provide a solution.
  • ·       I was able to speak about the new Boy Scouts of America Nova Awards that incorporate project based learning and many of their latest STEM merit badges (including the merit badge for Robotics) for awards that can be earned through Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, and Venturers. “Be Prepared” has come to mean not simply prepared for wilderness and citizenship, but for 21st century jobs and skills.
  • ·        We heard through email from Kristen Holmes of Ambridge School district her school’s success with the Technology Student Association. TSA sponsors numerous middle school and high school competitions for technology programs, including the VEX Robotics competition. Kristin Holmes, Technology Education Teacher at Ambridge High School is available to support any area teachers seeking to implement this program in your school. 

The teachers, parents and business leaders involved in robotics are marked with the courage to change: to change their approach to teaching, their relationship with parents and schools, and the courage to risk failure and learn beside their students.  I am so honored to call them colleagues.

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