STEM Education Going the Way of the Robot

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Photos by Brian Addison.

The room is abuzz with power tools and little people shuffling back and forth. The hum of their voices almost drowning out the whirring drills. Their tiny tinkering hands work vigorously tightening bolts and configuring remote controls.

If we weren’t on the cusp of summer, you might mistaken this for a jolly old man’s toy shop in the North Pole. But these aren’t elves. These are eighth grade students in the MESA Program (Mathematics, Engineering, Science, Achievement) at Marshall Academy of the Arts.

And they’re building robots.

Head robot driver, Kyle Beasley, hardly looks up from his work. The Marshall team was bounced out of the finals of their last competition and some things need tweaking to ensure that doesn’t happen again at this year's Robo Bowl. Robo Bowl is the district-wide tournament that, come June 7, will pit 16 LBUSD middle schools against each other with one robotics team to rule them all.

RoboBowl02This is Marshall’s first year teaching robotics so they have some catching up to do—even with Robo Bowl being only their third event they’re veterans of the robo-gridiron.

"The first competition we didn’t know what we were walking into," Beasley said. "But toward the end of the competition we understood everything and felt confident about ourselves."

The first annual Robo Bowl was hosted at Westerly School last year as part of the 2013 graduating class of Leadership Long Beach’s community improvement project with a focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) education. This year’s event, to be held at McBride High School, will feature nearly every school in the district.

The programs utilize VEX Robotics Design Systems, a Texas-based robotics program that helps students learn about mechanics, electrical systems, computer programming, and engineering design through hands-on robot building. There are more than 10,000 teams globally using VEX in 32 different countries. However, the company merely provides a prototype which students can learn the basics; all robots resulting afterward are products of students’ imaginations and ingenuity.

"Basically we get a manual that has a proto-bot so we build that and figure out all the mechanics, like how things work," said Christian Nixon, a 14-year-old designer, programmer and driver for Marshall’s robotics team. "Then we have to go in and build our own design for the competitions. It usually takes us around 2 months to get something from an idea to being working and functional."

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Christian Nixon controls one of the team's robotic creations.

The tournament forces teams to work cooperatively in "alliances" with other schools in a game called "toss-up," where robots work together to scoop up balls off the squared-off course and place them into a cylindrical goal zone. Some robots specialize in scooping while others focus on shuttling the ball into the goal, but the difference help the students to learn new techniques from opposing teams. It also forces them to be attentive, because after the preliminary rounds in which alliances are randomly selected, students can partner up with robots that they feel best complement their own.

Depending on the school’s budget, the robots—a conglomeration of wheels, wires, motors and paddles—can run anywhere between $1,500 and $4,000. Add in maintenance—$15-$30 for motors—VEX competition entry fees—$150 dollars per team—and the start up cost for school’s robotics program—some $10,000—and it’s clear to see that robot-building is not a small expenditure. However, fundraising and help from the Stuart Foundation, a organization dedicated to improving youth education, helped make the price tag palatable to schools.

RoboBowl04"Basically we kind of told that story to a lot of the administrators and teachers and a lot of them said, 'Yes, we want to try this, we can do this.'" sad Ken Weber, LBUSD secondary schools office administrative assistant.

But why robots?

"It’s of high interest and it’s easy and very engaging for the kids because it’s hands-on," Weber said. "Even though robotics seems threatening because you think you have to know a lot about it, it allows the kids to kind of learn through trial and error to basically teach something until they get a product. And that’s always the fun part about any kind of project is having a product."

The open-ended curriculum of the program allows creativity to flourish. The rigid guidelines of standard core-classes are cast to the side and kids are more or less allowed to steer the ship. Christine Appel, a science teacher and MESA advisor at Marshall, was charged with the task of learning the robotics program material and relaying it to her students. She said it wasn’t an issue that engineering wasn’t her strong point because the creative license given to the children allows her to sit back and watch them learn together.

"They call me an advisor—not a teacher—and that’s what I do," Appell said. "I taught them the rules of the game, how to program, but the building of the robots was all up to them."

Weber described the humble beginnings of robotics in the city. Six years ago, the curriculum was sequestered in the north part of the city, with the schools in the direct vicinity of the esteemed California Academy of Math and Science (CAMS), located on the campus of California State University Dominguez Hills. This provided the students from the four surrounding middle schools with the ability to be mentored by students from CAMS award-winning robotics program. However, with Weber’s coordination and persistence, the reach of robotics has exploded to include 16 schools.

"It’s been incredible because it started so small with the four schools in North Long Beach and now it’s blown up to where we have well over 400 kids district-wide building robots," Weber said. "That’s a big deal."

STEM education has been a big deal, too—so big of a deal that President Obama has put it front and center in several State of the Union speeches, stressing the need for our country's youth to keep pace with the rest of the world to be competitive in STEM related fields. Last week, the White House hosted its fourth annual science fair with students as young as 6 representing more than 30 states nation wide. This year’s focus: women in STEM.

According to a study released by the Department of Commerce in 2011 addressing the gender gap in STEM, women represent 24% of the STEM workforce but those that do earn a third more income than women with careers outside of STEM fields. Aside from providing a more homogenous field for STEM and helping close the wage gap between men ad women, President Obama said that by not including more women the country is failing to fire on all cylinders.

"That means we got half our team we’re not even putting on the field," Obama said. "We’ve got to change those numbers."

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Sophia Perry fine-tuning a robot during a short break between periods.

Sophia Perry is part of that female wave of young scientists, engineers, and mathematicians Obama is referring to. Although the eighth grader is not a lead designer or in the glamorous position of driver, she has very important tasks for Team Marshall. During the preliminary rounds, she takes notes of design deficiencies to be fixed and scouts competitor’s schools so when the team has the option to choose their partner they can pair up with the most advantageous robots.

Perry is set to attend CAMS next year and said she isn’t sure if she’ll pursue engineering but being part of the robotics team and the thrill of competitions and CAMS already established robotics program has made that an enticing possibility.

"It was exciting," Perry said of her first VEX tournament. "I mean it’s a competition. It’s fun to watch and cheer your robot on thinking that you built it. It’s not just something you’re watching on TV; it’s something that you built."

Whether these students end up building robots for a living is secondary, the fact that excitement is being generated suggests that the district’s robot angle to tackling STEM education might be working. Weber said they always want to make the program bigger at the middle school level, and there are preliminary plans to incorporate the VEX elementary school version of technology to spark interest in younger students with Prisk Elementary School being one of the early converts.

Meanwhile back in the lab, Nixon and the rest of Team Marshall are focused on not repeating mistakes from previous tournaments. This is a learning lab but a tournament is a tournament and the only silver color they want to see at Robo Bowl is on the chassis of their creations.

"I just really hope that this time around we can overcome all the problems we had last time," Nixon said. "Especially since we already know what’s wrong with it so we can fix it before they happen."

The Long Beach Unified School District’s second annual Robo Bowl is scheduled for 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, June 7 at McBride High School, 7025 E. Parkcrest St. in Long Beach.



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