Hoping to inspire a new crop of engineers, many educators are turning to robotics, holding design competitions, and challenging classmates to outdo one another in a battle for technical supremacy.

At the Lummi Nation School in Bellingham, Wash., for example, a group of eighth-grade science students recently worked with volunteers at Western Washington University to build remote-controlled robots used to explore the ocean.

At the Academy of Information Technology and Engineering in Stamford, Conn., high school students build electronic cars and other mechanical devices as part of an introductory class on the elements of robotics.

And later this month, in Atlanta, more than 20,000 people will gather in the Georgia Dome for the finals of the 2007 FIRST Robotics Competition. FIRST, or For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, is an annual event that brings K-12 students from every state and at least three countries together to compete in a series of robotics challenges.

Part Super Bowl, part high school science fair, the event takes winning teams from 37 national and international regional events and pits them against one another in a bid for the best student-made robot. Some 9,000 students from 1,300 different teams will square off in three separate competitions to determine which team has what it takes to win.

When it comes to engaging students in technical disciplines, few activities are a bigger draw than robotics. "Robotics brings a real sizzle to engineering," said Niel Tebbano, vice president of operations for Project Lead the Way, a national initiative that offers eight high-school-level courses designed to expose students to the rigor of engineering before they reach college. "It’s something that’s always been very appealing to young people."

Robots in the classroom

But robots aren’t just tools for technical education. When used effectively, some experts say, they can be important cogs in the learning process, providing a new way of thinking for students, while helping to illustrate abstract concepts that–before the integration of such devices into the classroom–had proved difficult to teach.

As the chief executive officer of Valiant Technology, a U.K.-based engineering and design firm that builds robots for use by teachers and students, Dave Catlin is an advocate. Catlin’s company reportedly has sold more than a quarter of a million of its Roamer robots to schools.

Catlin says he hopes to build on the success of his original Roamer robot with the upcoming release of Roamer Too, a sleek new version of the original device that integrates voice capabilities and other features for a more interactive user experience. Already being demonstrated in the U.K., Catlin said, Roamer Too should be available in the U.S. this summer.

Resembling an oversized mushroom cap on wheels, the plastic, dome-shaped devices reportedly are being used in classrooms to do everything from impart simple mathematics concepts, to engage developmentally disabled learners. In some cases, Catlin says, schools even are using the robots as mechanical guinea pigs, giving aspiring engineers a chance to dissect them in the name of practical knowledge. What’s more, he says, at less than $150 per machine, depending on accessories and software, the Roamer likely won’t break the bank where school budgets are concerned.

Michael Doyle, program manager for math, science, and technology at the Cattaraugus Allegany Board of Cooperative Educational Services in southwestern New York, said educators in the 22 school districts his organization serves currently have access to at least 60 of the machines and use them in subjects ranging from English to mathematics.

Constantly on the hunt for new ways to leverage technology in the classroom, Doyle said, he first learned of the Roamer’s versatility when an English teacher in one of his schools used a set of robots to help teach a lesson on Three Billy Goats Gruff, the age-old folktale about three goats that try to cross a bridge guarded by an evil troll.

Instead of simply reading the story to the class and later leading students in a discussion about its meaning, Doyle said, the teacher had the students program the robots to act as characters in the book, using the technology to reconstruct the story for their classmates.

Where the exercise served to teach students about the basic elements of the story, he said, it also encouraged them to work together in teams, using their critical thinking and problem-solving skills to decipher simple mathematics equations, program the robots on the computer, and choreograph the movements of each machine to reflect the storyline.

"The planning that was involved in being able to do that was just incredible," Doyle said of the project.

Now, as efforts such as NCLB force schools to get tough on teaching STEM disciplines, Doyle says, teachers are becoming increasingly interested in the power of robotics–not so much as a lesson in high technology, but as a fundamental tool for helping students master the basics.

Throughout southwestern New York, he said, tech-savvy educators reportedly are using the Roamer robots to help emphasize certain geometric concepts, teach students how to plot points on a navigational map, and lead lessons in beginning programming and engineering.

Unlike most textbooks, where problems are written out on paper and to exact results, robotic tools such as the Roamer illustrate the unpredictability of math in the real world, Doyle says. For instance, students using the Roamer must account for a series of real-world variables such as the impact of the floor’s surface–carpet or tile–on movement, and other circumstances beyond their control.

"When you’re driving down the road, you’re not necessarily driving in a straight line," explained Doyle. "There are all sorts of variables to contend with." The Roamer helps students learn to account for these, he said.

At the Mathematics & Science Center in Richmond, Va., K-5 math and physical science teacher Gail Warren says educators use Valiant’s Roamer to teach third-graders about such fundamental concepts as angles, degrees, and basic geometry. Instead of simply drawing shapes on a board or manipulating them on a computer screen, she said, teachers work with students to program the movements into the robots and then watch as the machines carry out each action as assigned.

Not unlike learning a foreign language, Warren said, it’s important for students to interact with technology at a young age. The earlier they pick it up, she said, the more likely they are to retain the information being taught–a benefit that will only serve to help them as they compete for jobs in an increasingly technology-driven workforce.

That his Roamers are being deployed for such a myriad of purposes is no surprise to Catlin. When it comes to designing robots for use in schools, he says, there is a difference between creating devices for entertainment and building them as tools for learning.

Expanding on research first cultivated by famed MIT professor Seymour Papert, Catlin designs his machines, in part, using the Logo programming language–an educational philosophy that examines how children learn through their interaction with other people and the world around them.

Papert first illustrated the Logo concept through the creation of a rudimentary robot called the Turtle. Similar to Catlin’s Roamer, the Turtle was a small device that moved around on the floor and responded to commands typed by teachers and students into a computer.

Just as the robots "learn" from completing a series of tasks, Catlin said, students also are able to improve their understanding of basic concepts by observing theirs and others’ interactions with the robot.

The theory is simple: Children learn best when they are able to visualize a concept, then further explain themselves by drawing on prior knowledge.

By watching the robot perform a basic function such as moving across the floor five feet, Catlin explained, a student is able to visualize five feet as a unit of measurement, forming a picture in his or her mind of what five feet looks like in real terms.

Such mental connections are difficult to make when tethered to a computer. But by providing the means for students to put their hands on the technology, to give the robot commands and observe its actions firsthand, he said, educators can go a long way toward ensuring that young learners not only grasp, but retain, the information being taught.

"If you make something exciting for a kid, [he or she] will remember it forever," Catlin said. "The robot helps give students that practical experience … it helps build that intuitiveness, that understanding."

The technology also reportedly has worked to engage learning disabled and other developmentally challenged students who are hard to reach in traditional learning environments, said Catlin. In some cases, the robot acts as a calming agent, forcing kids to focus their attention on something that operates under their own control.

In some high schools, he said, educators even use the robots to help teach advanced technology skills–a move that has transformed the Roamer from a tool for teaching basic concepts such as math and English to a means of educating students about the nuances of mechanical design and engineering.

On a grander stage

The Roamer isn’t the only tool educators have at their disposal for putting the "E" back into STEM education. After launching with 28 teams in 1992, FIRST reportedly has experienced double-digit growth each year since its inception, with a 15 percent spike in participation this year alone.

Chief Marketing Officer John Marchiony said there is little doubt that a renewed emphasis in STEM education is driving interest in the program, which features three different robotics challenges targeted at students in grades K-12.

"A growing number of individuals and corporations have identified looming gaps in their workforce," Marchiony said. To help fill those gaps, leading technology corporations and organizations–including BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin, and NASA–have combined to provide the financial backing and services to support the competition.

Apart from giving corporate sponsors a chance to flag top talent, Marchiony said, the program also helps foster important 21st-century skills such as teamwork and collaboration–providing an experience for students that mirrors what they’re likely to encounter in the business world, no matter what career they choose.

Students work together in teams to research, design, and build their own robots using a kit and guidelines pulled together by the folks at FIRST. The teams then join with other teams from across the country to form alliances, competing against teams in other alliances to advance through the tournament.

"We emphasize a concept called gracious professionalism," said Marchiony. "Basically, the idea is for the kids to compete like crazy and go home proud of how they performed."

When the program first launched in the early 90s, Marchiony said, the robots competed in simple tasks such as pushing past opponents on a ramp. But as the technology has evolved, so, too, has the challenge for students. This year, he says, contestants are competing under the theme "Rack ‘n’ Roll." As part of the competition, the remote-controlled robots are required to pick up plastic tubes and hang them on a rack in the center of the ring. Teams have two minutes and 15 seconds to hang as many tubes as they can. The team that hangs the most tubes successfully by the end of the round wins.

Whether educators choose to enter their students in a national robotics competition or invest in robots for use in their classrooms, Catlin stresses this: The technology "is not by any means a panacea." Like any classroom solution, he says, the machines are only as good as the curriculum that surrounds them.

"It’s sort of like saying, ‘Does a pencil meet the standards?’" said Catlin. "The technology is a tool. It provokes kids to think."

Links:

Cattaraugus Allegany BOCES
http://www.caboces.org/

Logo Foundation
http://el.media.mit.edu/logo-foundation/

Mathematics & Science Center
http://www.mathsciencecenter.info/

Project Lead the Way
http://www.pltw.org/

Valiant Technology
http://www.valiant-technology.com/