As pressure mounts to educate today’s students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics–also known as the STEM disciplines–to ensure America remains a global leader in innovation, educators from coast to coast have been busy retooling programs to make mastering such complicated subjects less daunting.

Thanks, in part, to the demands of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, significant headway already is being made in math and science courses. But, according to some critics, where the quest for STEM mastery still falls woefully short is in the middle–with technology and engineering instruction.

"Technology and engineering are like the neglected stepsisters in the STEM education family," 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 prior to college.

Hoping to change that, many educators are turning to robotics, holding design competitions and challenging classmates 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 last month, in Atlanta, more than 20,000 people gathered 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 squared off this year in three separate competitions to determine which team had what it takes to win.

When it comes to engaging students in technical disciplines, Tebbano said, few activities are a bigger draw than robotics. "Robotics brings a real sizzle to engineering," he said. "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–prior to the integration of such devices in 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 one such believer. 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 release of Roamer Too, a new version 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 have access to at least 60 of the machines and use them 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 on movement.

"When you’re driving down the road, you’re not necessarily driving in a straight line," he explained. "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.

Like 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 help them as they compete for jobs in an increasingly technology-driven workforce.

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. By watching the robot perform a basic function such as moving across the floor five feet, for example, 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 hard to make when tethered to a computer. But by allowing students to put their hands on the technology, to give the robot commands and observe its actions firsthand, he said, educators can help ensure that students 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."

On a grander stage

The Roamer isn’t the only tool educators have 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, NASA, and others–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.

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 competed under the theme "Rack ‘n’ Roll." The remote-controlled robots were required to pick up plastic tubes and hang them on a rack in the center of the ring; teams had two minutes and 15 seconds to hang as many tubes as they could.

Whether educators choose to enter their students in a national robotics competition or invest in robots for use in their classrooms, Catlin stresses 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."