Civic News

Are robotics competitions the key to drive students’ interest in STEM programs? [VIDEO]

The robots are the hook. On Saturday dozens of students on robotics teams from city schools gathered at Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women downtown for the VEXmas Classic. Teams battled each other in “Sack Attack,” guiding motorized, wheeled robots around square fields while using clawed arms to scoop up bean bags and deposit them in troughs and […]

The robots are the hook.
On Saturday dozens of students on robotics teams from city schools gathered at Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women downtown for the VEXmas Classic.

Teams battled each other in “Sack Attack,” guiding motorized, wheeled robots around square fields while using clawed arms to scoop up bean bags and deposit them in troughs and towers almost two feet from the ground in order to score points — Western High School’s all-female RoboDoves won the chance to compete against high school robotics teams from across the world at the 2013 VEX World Championship.
But behind the flashiness of robots programmed with basic C+ language roving around a 12-foot-by-12-foot field collecting bean bags is a more substantive end goal.
“Robotics is a marketing tool,” said Josh Gabrielse, a former physics and robotics teacher at Dunbar High School who now runs the Baltimore City Public Schools’ robotics program. “We’re trying to sell math and science to kids.”

Watch a video of robots duking it out in “Sack Attack,” taken during this summer’s Robotics Olympiad:

Robotics programs are all the rage in rethinking education across the country, even though enticing middle and high school students in Baltimore city toward STEM programs and classes through robotics competitions is a thesis yet to be supported with serious evidence. (Gabrielse said getting “real data” showing “math and science development” is a priority for the city’s school system.)
To be sure, what students are required to do to participate in school robotics teams takes effort. Student teams have to track construction and programming of their robots in engineering notebooks. If a robot malfunctions or breaks down during a competition, it’s the students who have to hack together a quick solution in between matches. And, perhaps more important, students have to work with each other, a life-skill if there ever was one.
A less tangible benefit seems to be the value of getting people “intermixing,” as Ed Mullin told Technically Baltimore in September.
Mullin, who serves as the CIO for LCG Technologies, said then that robotics events—including the VEX world championship—act as scouting grounds for engineering firms and enterprise companies on the hunt for new talent.
Keimmie Booth, a member of Western High School‘s all-female RoboDoves team (whom she has called the “Lakers of robotics”), now works as an intern at LCG developing a prototype HTML5 mobile application for a local health organization. One of the judges at Saturday’s event was a longtime employee at Northrop Grumman, which provided $67,000 to help build two new STEM labs at Baltimore Leadership School that opened in March 2012.
Perhaps the chief benefit of robotics programs and events in Baltimore city’s schools is, as Mullin said, “that it’s fun and kids enjoy it and you can bust through the digital divide for a very low price without a tremendous amount of effort.”
That appears to be the tack Baltimore City Public Schools is taking: the three robotics competitions it’s lending support to in the 2012-2013 academic year is two more than last academic year. The equipment students use—the fields, the parts the robots are built from, the laptops and sound systems employed at the competitions—is owned by the city school system, said Gabrielse.

Sack Attack

The 12’x12′ field of play for Sack Attack matches.


Other costs, however, can get in the way. A $75 registration fee was required to participate in Saturday’s competition. The RoboDoves, who qualified for the VEX World Championship during Saturday’s VEXmas Classic, might not even compete “because as of now the team has no money for the registration fee and the flight,” said Booth in an e-mail. Registration alone for the world championship, which takes place in California in April 2013, is $750 per team.
If cost is an impediment, the solution, said Gabrielse, is to give Baltimore city’s robotics teams a local championship in which to compete. Such a championship is in the planning stages now, and it’s tentatively scheduled to take place at Johns Hopkins University in early May 2013.
“I don’t really care [about the VEX World Championship],” Gabrielse said. “I want [students] to have a competition to aspire to here in Baltimore.”
When that happens—and if it becomes a recurring event each year—then maybe Baltimore city will have a new way of training students for a 21st-century workforce.

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