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Why go robo? It's a toy ... it's a game ... it's a ... teaching tool? Yes, building robots is a blast. But fun is only one part of the picture, as more and more educators across the country utilize robotics to teach complex science, mathematics and technology topics in and out of their classrooms.

Why do so many kids give up their free time to stay after school and work with Mars rovers, LEGO kits, and sumo-bots?

Robotics is a fun and engaging activity that appeals to a diverse range of students who want to try their hands at creating their own robot devices. Their teachers and mentors, meanwhile, like to see the young people acquiring hands-on experience in design, construction and problem solving.

Creating robots involves the practical application of physics, computer science, engineering and mathematics. By studying robotics, students can gain a deeper understanding of a variety of complex topics and apply the knowledge from these disciplines. The robots themselves are great teachers because they give immediate feedback to the student's actions.

Teachers can integrate robotics into their existing curriculum or create an after-school program, helping students gain content knowledge and hands-on experience. Engineering mentors often help to guide the students in robotics, fostering important school-community partnerships.

Learning about robotics can also prove to be a lucrative process for students of all ages, as this emerges as a real career opportunity in our society. Estimates are that, by 2005, nearly one million robots will be used worldwide in such trades as the automotive industry, electronics and medicine.

Classroom Challenge

Most educators believe there is no better way to learn than through personal, hands-on experience. With robotics, students design, construct and program their own robots--as opposed to merely listening and passively absorbing lectured material.

Chris Blower, science teacher at Sandcreek Middle School in Idaho Falls, Idaho, has been working with middle school students for the past seven years building robots from plastic LEGOs. She lists many diverse benefits for her students, including an improvement in their logical thinking, mathematical and problem-solving skills. But, creativity is an important part of it as well, she notes.

"The students have to stretch their minds to design their projects," says Blower. "They take risks and they learn to say, 'That didn't work,' and ask 'Why?'"

Another benefit of building robots, whether in the classroom or an after-school program, is that it requires students to work together in teams.

"It's not only academics that these kids gain, but it's also social and emotional skills," says Blower. She notes that the students on these teams must learn cooperation and the ability to resolve disputes. "These are extremely important skills for this age group."

Special needs students can also benefit from learning about robots in a variety of ways. Blower recalls a student with cerebral palsy who has transformed his whole perception of what he is able to do through creating robots.

"His fine motor skills have increased amazingly. It's incredible what he can do now with LEGOs," she says. "Many students who think they don't have the aptitude discover so much about themselves in this way."

Electronics and Computer Maintenance/Repair Teacher Curt Thomas at Hillcrest High School in Idaho Fails also sees a great advantage in using robotics with secondary students in an after-school program.

"Sometimes we educators can get stuck on theory," he says. "But doing this gives students a chance to see how things actually work. They can figure out what they are doing in a real-life situation through troubleshooting. We leave the problems open-ended and they can use their imaginations."

Real World Connection

Robotics is an innovative technology that has very broad and diverse applications in industry. No wonder private companies and governmental organizations are eager to support-and even become directly involved in--the teaching of robotics to young people.

In one such example, the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL) has partnered with local schools ill the state to encourage robotics instruction at the middle school and high school levels. According to INEEL Engineer Matthew Anderson, the early exposure of engineering concepts can help inspire students to pursue particular academic and career paths.

"I see tenth graders getting information many engineers don't learn until their third or fourth year of college," says Anderson. "And this is not trivial stuff these kids are doing--this is what I use on a daily basis in my job."

Anderson says that the INEEL offers training sessions to educators who then take back the information to the classroom and after-school robotics programs. Students also come in on the weekends to learn from Anderson and fellow engineer Mark McKay.

Aidan Browne, systems integration engineer at Hamilton Sundstrand (a division of United Technologies) in Connecticut, is also involved with robotics in his area, Browne is coach and mentor of the "Buzz Team" from Enrico Fermi High School and also heads up software and programming for the team.

Browne believes that the excitement generated by robotics programs can help break down some cultural stereotypes, such as the idea that engineers are geeks. "It allows these students to express their love for technology and may open up a path they never considered before."

Browne sees great benefits for everyone in the relationships being made between industry and education through robotics.

"Companies are happy to make connections with kids at this level and get them excited about these topics." He says that these relationships often continue for the students into summer internships and even future employment.

Battling Bots

Students almost always build their robots with a goal in mind--some kind of local, regional or national competition. There are a great many of these robotic challenges, races, and competitive events and the numbers continue to increase, as robotics becomes more popular in the schools.

One of the most notable national events is the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition, a multinational competition that teams professionals and young people to solve an engineering design problem in an intense and competitive way.

FIRST, which began 10 years ago with 28 teams in a New Hampshire high school gym, today encompasses more than 1,000 teams of 20,000 students competing in 23 regional events and a championship event. It is a nonprofit organization created by noted engineer Dean Kamen.

FIRST challenges groups of students and their mentors to solve a common problem in a six-week timeframe using a standard "kit of parts" and a common set of rules. Teams build robots from the parts and enter them in a series of competitions.

Browne's "Buzz Team" of approximately 20 to 25 students competes each year in two regional and the national FIRST championship event. His team won the Chairman's Award in 2002 and Browne was honored as the fifth "Unsung FIRST Hero" for his contributions to the event and the robotics community.

The competition is a huge draw to students. Browne recalls one female student who let him know that her original motivation to join the team was to get a trip to Disneyworld in Florida.

"She never expected to fall in love with it," says Browne. This same student is now majoring in engineering and returns to help mentor high school students on the robotics team.

Not all competitions are as big as FIRST. One popular regional robotics competition is the RoboChallenge in the state of Idaho. It began modestly about nine years ago with the cooperation of the INEEL and today students from throughout the state come to take part.

"It's growing by leaps and bounds," says Coordinator Tonya Bunnell. Teachers Curt Thomas and Chris Blower both have their students participate in RoboChallenge, which is hosted at Hillcrest.

Blower says that the competition helps to ground her middle school students in a hands-on experience. "At this age, abstract concepts are much harder to grasp," she says. "This competition bridges the gap from abstract to concrete. Students may not understand all the math concepts, but they can learn how to make their robot do what they want."

Overall, such events are exciting, competitive and engaging. It may be interesting to watch two robots trying to find one another in a maze or push one another out of a circle. It can be intriguing to see how they can be programmed to follow a line, play hide and seek, or find the brightest light.

But what is most amazing of all is actually what stands behind all of these small electronic marvels: motivated students who are excited about learning.

Robotics Online Learn more about robotics from these websites:

Home and Entertainment Robotics

Boosting Engineering, Science and Technology

FIRST Robotics Challenge

LEGO Mindstorms for Schools mindstorms

NASA Robotics EducatiOn Project*

Planetary Society's Red Rover Project

Robo Challenge robotics/robochallenge/ robochallenge.shtml

Robot Cafe

Information on some of the different robotics competitions can be found at www, events/competitions.htm, Competitions, and

* Check out the "Cool Robot of the Week" at the NASA Robotics Education Project site. This honor is bestowed upon those robotics-related websites that portray highly innovative solutions to robotics problems, describe unique approaches to implementing robotics systems, or present exciting interfaces for the dissemination of robotics-related information or promoting robotics technology.

Sandy Cutshall Is a regular contributor to Techniques. She works as a writer/editor In Mountain View, California, where she also teaches adults English as a second language.
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Author:Cutshall, Sandy
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2003
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