UCD program brings robotics—and math—to at-risk kids in Sacramento schools


The robot is called a linkbot, because it can be linked with other robots to build bigger ones that can accomplish complicated tasks and solve advanced problems.

Angel Baez and Andrew Robbins each pressed a button on their palm-size robots and bumped them together to sync them. Baez then held his cylindrical robot like a steering wheel, shooting Robbins’ across the table.

The two students at California Middle School in Sacramento, Calif., had fun on Oct. 31 familiarizing themselves with the new robots. But what seemed like play also served as the foundation for lifelong analytical thinking, including the basics of algebra concepts the boys must understand to graduate from high school.

UC Davis professor Harry Cheng wanted to bring computer robotics—once relegated to after-school programs and advanced classes—to schools with at-risk students to spark their curiosity and improve their grades.

He opened the Center for Integrated Computing and STEM Education (C-STEM) at UC Davis in 2010 with the specific goal of expanding access to science and math-related fields to minority, low-income, and female students, though the robotics curriculum is available to all schools.

“I think … our students are more engaged,” he said. “Students are interested, and that’s important. If we can get students engaged, that’s a hope.”

Cheng’s center so far has trained more than 100 K-14 teachers in basic computer programming and robotics skills. Among them is Maria Aguilar, who teaches “Introduction to Computer Robotics” at California Middle School in Sacramento.

Students in Aguilar’s fifth-period class run the gamut of ability—from special education to advanced students. Each student listened intently Oct. 31 as Aguilar demonstrated the basics of computer programming and talked about math concepts such as the radius of a circle and angles.

The payoff: using the information to operate the robots.

(Next page: What students think of the robotics program)