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K-12 Students Hooked on Science Through Robotics

Getting students truly excited about what they learn in the classroom can be a challenge. How can teachers inspire young learners to understand the usefulness and relevance of the topics they study? One education initiative, the National Science Foundation’s Graduate STEM Fellows in K-12 Education (GK-12) project, aims to bring that extra spark to science classrooms nationwide: it provides funding for graduate students in STEM fields to create collaborative teaching partnerships with K-12 teachers and their students. These partnerships are a win-win: the grad students get hands-on teaching experience, while the K-12 teachers and students benefit from having a real-life scientist-in-training as a resource.

One highly successful GK-12 program is the Applying Mechatronics to Promote Science/Central Brooklyn STEM Initiative program (AMPS/CBSI) run by the Polytechnic Institute of New York University (known as NYU-Poly) in Brooklyn, New York. NYU-Poly grad student fellows — mechanical and electrical engineers, chemists and biologists, and computer scientists — work with teachers at local elementary, middle, and high schools to incorporate robotics-based lessons into their science curricula. Dr. Vikram Kapila, the main director of AMPS/CBSI and a professor of mechanical engineering at NYU-Poly, says of the K-12 students, “We try to engage them to learn about STEM topics using robotics as a hook. Robotics is seen as a very exciting topic!” The program was founded in 2007 and since then has expanded to 22 schools in Brooklyn.

The program is structured such that the fellows and teachers have ample time to collaborate: in the summer, the teachers and fellows in the program are paired together and have meetings to plan the robotics activities that will be used in the classroom the following academic year. AMPS/CBSI also includes pedagogy workshops for the grad students, who Dr. Kapila says may not have much experience with teaching, especially to younger audiences. In addition, Dr. Kapila notes, “It is important to bring teachers into the fold and provide sustained professional development in robotics,” to ensure that they are well-versed in the tools and concepts that the program uses.

As for what happens inside the classroom, the lessons that AMPS/CBSI fellows help create use robotics to illustrate or enrich scientific concepts. For example, Dr. Kapila noted that a few years ago an AMPS/CBSI fellow, a mechanical engineering grad student, observed a math lesson about unit conversion. The grad student noticed that the abstract way in which the topic was presented wasn’t enough to help the students grasp the material, and unfortunately, as Dr. Kapila explained, “Students may not have realized why all of this is important.” When the fellow described these problems at a meeting later, Dr. Kapila said, “Why not address them?”

The AMPS/CBSI fellow then went on to design a robotics activity that would illustrate the importance of unit conversion: the students would program small a Lego robot to move forward a set distance — say, three feet — and then measure the same distance in other units, like inches or centimeters. This interactive lesson, Dr. Kapila explained, showed students the contexts in which unit conversion was important, and also got them excited about it. In fact, students are often so inspired by the AMPS/CBSI program that they spend hours after school working to design and build robots to enter in citywide competitions.

Dr. Kapila is quick to note that while people may assume that girls aren’t as interested as boys are in learning about robotics, technology, or science, that hasn’t been the case in the program. “Of late we have been debunking this myth that girls are not interested in robotics,” he says. “If you show robotics used as a proper tool, girls are interested as boys are.” He also says that having a strong showing of women AMPS/CBSI fellows helps female K-12 students find positive role models.

In addition to illustrating scientific concepts, robotics also help teach teamwork and problem-solving skills. Dr. Kapila says that students rise to the unique challenges robotics poses and this helps them become better scientific thinkers. “The fellows cannot program or create the robots, the teachers can’t,” he says. “It’s up to the students!”

Be sure to check out the main NSF GK-12 program website and the NYU-Poly AMPS/CBSI website.

And take a look at these resources on Science NetLinks for more fun with robotics:

PHOTO CREDIT: CLIPART.COM

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