Constructing robots adds a hands-on dynamic to any STEM classroom

Constructing robots adds a hands-on dynamic to any STEM classroom

     When you hear the word ‘robot’, what comes to mind? Loveable helpers like WALL-E, scary foes like the Terminator, artificial intelligences like the infamous HAL 3000, or something different? Robots have as many shapes as they do functions, which are innumerable. Before we design world-saving (or destroying) metal humanoids, let alone more practical robots to help the elderly, automate production lines, and help clean the environment, we need to learn how to build and code them. This type of exposure occurs for most students in a STEM classroom or club. These are becoming more and more common, as education officials and citizens alike are realizing that our curriculum needs to reflect the changing, increasingly technological world around us. That means your child will hopefully have the opportunity to take a robotics or computer class, the value of which cannot be understated.

     STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. It is a handy little acronym to describe the range of fields that rely on critical thinking, rational analysis, and verifiable and replicable evidence to try to understand the world. The education departments of the US and other countries around the world are pushing for schools to put a great emphasis on these classes. A basic understanding of things like coding, the scientific method, and computers are needed to understand and operate in the world we inhabit; in fact, every indication points towards us moving into an increasingly globalized, technological world, which means more jobs in these fields and for people with skills appropriate for the challenges we will face. So it is our job to prepare our students for this reality, and we will do that through the STEM initiative.

Even teachers enjoy the hands-on nature of robotics!

Even teachers enjoy the hands-on nature of robotics!

     Apart from all the ideological talk, the government is putting money where its mouth is and providing funding for these programs. That means your school may be able to get things like a robotics club, a computer lab, or (in extreme cases) laptops for all the students. These opportunities expand what can be done in a classroom. Students will be engaged like they never have before. However, there are challenges. First and foremost, STEM courses aren’t easy. It is a tall task to train your brain to think logically, as well as learn all the facts, words, and techniques that are needed in science and math. Besides this, there is also the thought of wondering ‘how will any of this affect my life,’ which is dangerous in its short-sightedness. These are issues that must be addressed, but a major aspect of this push is to eliminate or mitigate these detracting thoughts by introducing a paradigm shift in science education.

     Robotics helps solve some of these issues as well. As a mixture of technology, science, and engineering, robotics is an interesting hybrid field within the STEM umbrella. It’s cross-disciplinary nature can be problematic if it isn’t taught correctly, but at its best, it is an exciting, engaging, rewarding subject. Students run the risk of feeling overwhelmed by the disparate subjects that comprise robotics, like coding, construction, engineering design, and electronics. A good teacher will pace the course, teaching lessons slowly enough to develop the groundwork, yet quickly enough to keep fresh material coming. More than other STEM classes, which can be abstract, overformal, and stuffy, robotics is creative and intuitive once the basics are out of the way.

Lectures like this are common in other STEM courses. They tend to bore students. Robotics has less of this type of instruction, and far more hands-on, active interaction.

Lectures like this are common in other STEM courses. They tend to bore students. Robotics has less of this type of instruction, and far more hands-on, active interaction.

     Of course, the biggest difference between robotics and things like computer science and math courses is that robotics require you to build an actual, physical robot. The value of a hands-on activity in the classroom, especially for younger students, is immense. It helps kids avoid thinking ‘why am I learning this’ and instead get excited, reframing it to something along the lines of ‘I’m excited to learn this!’ True to the subject matter of this article, there is evidence to back up the claim that hands-on learning in the classroom increases engagement, interest, and productivity. People are often one of several different types of learners, with the most prominent group being visual learners who gather information by looking at pictures or graphs. But a substantial population are kinesthetic learners, who need to move, act, and tinker to understand something. This group is often left out of a traditional classroom, where students are supposed to sit still at a desk for hours on end. Robotics is an opportunity for them to shine, and hopefully find something within STEM that they are passionate about.

     This hands-on dynamic is the greatest strength of robotics courses in the STEM curriculum compared to other classes. Appealing to kinesthetic learners gives it a leg up on more traditional science classes, although it should be added that if a student enjoys robotics, they may also like electronics, mechanics, or other experiment-heavy sciences. To prepare our students for the world we are leaving them, we need more technologically-literate citizens. For some, that literacy will be developed through robotics. That campaign starts in the classroom. The goal now is to get and keep students engaged, and helping those who find a passion in STEM fields pursue their goals in higher education and beyond into the global market.