Start a Robotics Team; Don’t Teach a Robotics Class

Posted: October 26, 2015 in Engineering, News
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

DSC_0830It’s hard to deny that “STEM” is the new buzzword in education. We need more STEM education! With the focus on this buzzword, schools are scrambling to figure out how to put STEM classes into their curriculum.

Robotics for me was the hook; it got me to explore, to question, to discover.

One of the most common ways schools are “adding STEM” is introducing robotics classes. I have seen countless schools that have introduced VEX IQ or LEGO MINDSTORMS as a way to address the need for STEM. These classes are “teaching” robotics, which as an engineer I don’t really understand.

Robotics is not something that is taught. The thing that makes robotics interesting is that it includes so many different subjects, that there is no right answer, that literally everyone can be involved. It really doesn’t fit into any classroom. What subject would it replace? Is robotics only an engineering subject? In response to the whole STEM push, another buzzword has come to light, STEAM. Robotics is STEAM education. The design, the marketing, the presentation of the robot is just as important as the engineering that goes into it.

It has been proven that robotics is an excellent way to get students excited about learning. Speaking from experience, I can tell you my parents didn’t get me LEGO MINDSTORMS to teach me STEM. Robotics for me was the hook; it got me to explore, to question, to discover.

Are we really overlooking the importance of English or the arts?!

All this begs the question is robotics in the classroom really teaching anything? I would venture to say very little. Sure you can learn the syntax of a programming language or basic electronics and mechanical skills, but with a clear answer or too much direction, the real prize is being overlook. And that of course assumes we are only constructing the robot, what about its design? What color should it be? How would people use it? How do you introduce it to the world? All question better suited in a social studies, art, or English class. Are we really overlooking the importance of English or the arts?!

So how do we “teach” robotics? Start a team! There are countless programs for robotics teams: Botball, VEX, and FIRST, just to name a few. While I have volunteered with a bunch of programs, I want to focus on FIRST. Most robots program focuses on the robot. There is some game or task to complete. It doesn’t really matter how it looks so long as it does the challenge at hand. While this will certainly teach robotics in an effective way, it misses the real-world point.

Success or failure in our world is dependent on communication and to do that, you need those “soft” skills: you need STEAM.

FIRST is different in that regard: the robot is only part of the challenge. The function of the robot is just as important as the design or the marketing. Think about it. When you go to buy something, doesn’t all that matter? Remember the Betamax vs. VHS? Or more recently, Blackberry vs. iPhone? Features like security, speed, robustness, or quality don’t matter if you can’t communicate them well. Success or failure in our world is dependent on communication and to do that, you need those “soft” skills: you need STEAM.

Taking the idea of robotics out of the classroom and onto the competition field opens up the concept to so much more. Programs like FIRST do an excellent job of giving students this experience. It enables students that are not interested in the engineering aspects to grow in other essential skills. It brings STEM education to those who would otherwise avoid the class.

It should come as no surprise that this upcoming competition for FIRST will bring STEAM to new heights. Building on the success of the prior 20+ seasons, 2016 promises to a new level of excitement to the program. The trailer below is just one example how taking robotics outside the classroom can do more to inspire than any class you could possibly teach. What a way to “Rally your kingdom”!

There is still time to get involved with many of the programs I mentioned. The best part about starting a team is that it doesn’t have to follow a quarter or semester plan! It will be some of the hardest fun you will ever have. You won’t know all the answers, your students won’t know all the answers, the professionals won’t know all the answers. BUT, you’ll figure it out. In the wise words of Yoda, “Do or do not, there is no try”. And trust me, this is something you want to do!

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