LEGO MINDSTORMS is part of the company's "Robotics for All Ages" program.

Engaging students at younger ages and making science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education more appealing were some of the main topics up for discussion at a roundtable discussion hosted by LEGO Education and National Instruments on June 3.

“I think a lot of kids [who] are sitting in classrooms aren’t engaged, because we aren’t stimulating them,” said Joan Abdallah of the American Association of the Advancement of Science (AAAS). “If we really engage the kids using various kinds of technology, I think we could be very successful.”

One such technology cited by Abdallah is a recently-released robotics program from LEGO Education and National Instruments. The LEGO Education WeDo Robotics Construction Set is an easy-to-use set that introduces elementary-school students to robotics, while LEGO MINDSTORMS Education is aimed at middle and high schools. LEGO also has released LEGO MINDSTORMS Education + TETRIX for use in high schools and colleges.

For more news on STEM education, see:

Solving the STEM Education Crisis

In April, National Instruments introduced LabView for LEGO MINDSTORMS, a new education-focused version of the company’s professional LabVIEW graphical design software developed specifically for the use of LEGO Education robots. Students learn from the same software used by scientists and engineers while visually controlling and programming their robots.

“[Students] want to create systems themselves, they want to design the game, they don’t want to play someone else’s game,” said Hunter Smith, K-12 product marketing engineer at National Instruments. “With robotics, there’s no correct answer, there’s no final solution, so everyone can create their own solution—and as long as you solve the challenge, you win.”

Smith said science activities too often don’t engage students, because they are too structured.

“A lot of times, in physics, it feels like you’re doing the lab for the lab’s sake, that you’re doing it for the grade and not for the science. You do this in robotics, and [students] stop thinking about the grade and they start thinking about all the crazy robots they can build. It’s inherently open-ended, and it’s real,” he said.

Stephan Turnipseed, the president of LEGO Education in North America, said the robotics program can be used to address community issues and help solve needs.

“We see a lot of teachers using robotics to engage in storytelling, which really has been interesting as it was an unexpected outcome,” he said.

However, engaging students is far from the only issue facing STEM education. According to the panel, many STEM teachers are not well trained, especially at the elementary level.

For more news on STEM education, see:

Solving the STEM Education Crisis

“There’s a huge need in elementary education for much better-prepared, skilled teachers, because if you have that and you can bring [good] math and science teachers in, the whole system is going to benefit,” said David Mandel, director of research and policy analysis with the National Center on Education and the Economy.

Abdallah agreed that a change is necessary.

“Teachers are ill prepared or unprepared by the universities, so it’s not their fault that they can’t do it,” she said.

“If you ask your average elementary school teacher if they’d like to teach robotics, they run screaming into the night,” Turnipseed said. “So we had to change our language.” He pointed out that when Smith teaches a programming course, he uses terminology designed to pique students’ curiosity, as opposed to confusing them with technical terms too early.

“[Smith] takes a very complex engineering idea and he says, ‘What we’re going to do right now is find out how fast this wiggles,’ rather than a fast Fourier transform, which is what we’re really doing mathematically,” Turnipseed said.

But there also have been some positive changes in terms of publicizing STEM education careers, panelists said.

“I think there is a trend of making science more important in our country. When you start to see more CSI and MythBusters and fewer reality shows, I think even if there’s just bits of science or aspects of science, making that a part of our culture reinforces it with kids,” Smith said.

Mandel pointed out the need for science education to begin at an earlier age.

For more news on STEM education, see:

Solving the STEM Education Crisis

“When Chinese and American kids are two years old, they look the same in terms of quantitative literacy. When they’re five years old, before they start school, there’s a huge difference; Chinese kids are way ahead, and it’s because dealing with numbers and measurement is something that goes on between parents and kids in China but not here,” Mandel said. He said that in the United States, parents teach their children the alphabet and how to read but don’t place any emphasis on numbers or understanding mathematics.

“One thing that’s coming down the pike are national science standards, and that’s going to start a big conversation including what should be going on in science in elementary education,” Mandel said. “We’ve got a lot of inertia to overcome.”