March 25, 2014

Student-designed Robot Vehicles Could Be Key To Stimulate More STEM Interest

STEM – as in science, technology, engineering and mathematics – has become the buzzword of the decade for anyone involved in education, but two Texas A&M University professors are encouraging secondary school teachers to put more emphasis on the “T” and the “E” in their classrooms. They suggest that having students design robot vehicles might fit that need to a “t.”

Joseph Morgan

Joseph Morgan

The two Texas A&M faculty members, Jennifer Whitfield, instructional assistant professor of mathematics and director of aggieTEACH, and Joseph Morgan, professor, electronic systems engineering technology (ESET), have teamed up to lead a conference session on robotics/engineering applications for high school classrooms, titled “The Power of the Partnership.”

They will present their concept Friday (March 28), at the New Horizons in Texas STEM Education Conference in San Antonio. Their audience will include faculty from other Texas universities and community colleges, representatives from Texas high schools and STEM teacher preparation programs.

“Dr. Morgan and I are from two different colleges (the College of Science – Department of Mathematics and the College of Engineering – Electronics) but there is power in our partnership because we share a common goal,” says Whitfield.

“We both want to ensure that the next generation of students is proficient in the STEM fields in order to meet the needs of Texas and the nation.  And we mean all of STEM: science, technology, engineering and mathematics.  We need to prepare and inspire middle school and high school students before they get to college.  For me, that means training our pre-service science and mathematics teachers to collaborate with engineers early on and to incorporate 21st century teaching methods into their classrooms.”

Morgan, director of the Mobile Integrated Solutions Laboratory ESET program, agrees. He and his colleagues have been implementing an array of innovative STEM outreach projects and camps, many focused on the Krisys Robotics platform developed by ESET students, in order to get high-achieving underrepresented high school students hooked on engineering at Texas A&M.

Jennifer Whitfield

Jennifer Whitfield

“Often when we think about STEM, the focus has been on science and math,” says Morgan. “By introducing design, fabrication and programming with Krisys Robots into a typical science or math classroom, we are putting the ‘T’ and the ‘E’ back into STEM. We want students and their teachers to get the full impact of STEM on every level. The Krisys Robot program is a paradigm for crossing discipline boundaries and motivating STEM activities.”

They emphasize that in the various STEM outreach programs conducted by Texas A&M, there is power in partnerships: partnerships between disciplines, partnerships between the university and the school districts they target, partnerships between government agencies and/or corporations and the university, partnerships between pre-service teachers and STEM outreach activities, and partnerships between college and high school students.

In a Krisys workshop, students are divided into small teams (usually three high school students are paired with a sophomore engineering student) and in a short time period are exposed to mechanical engineering, electronic engineering and computer science (as they design, build and test a small three-wheeled ‘robot/vehicle,’ populate the control/driver circuit board, install it on the robot and design the program that allows the vehicle to navigate and race on a circuitous path.) The culmination of those experiences is a racing competition that provides positive reinforcement for all the participants in a robotics workshop or classroom.

“What I love about working with robotics and engineering technology,” Whitfield states, “is that it’s a great way for university faculty, teacher preparation programs and entities that deliver STEM teacher professional development to train our teachers to deliver a total STEM experience with real-life applications. It is high-impact teaching that produces the learning outcomes that colleges and universities want and that potential employers are looking for when they are recruiting.

“The robotics workshops are not only engaging, but they promote collaboration, problem solving and a hands-on experience,” Whitfield explains.

“They are also outcome-based and allow for healthy competition,” adds Morgan. “But what we want both pre-service and in-service teachers to know is that so many of the principles that they teach to fulfill their curriculum requirements are incorporated into a Krisys Robotics workshop. And depending on how it is used, the project can take three days or fill an entire semester; it is scalable for a wide spectrum of time and ability levels.”

a team of students works on their robot design

A team of students works on their design.

For example, students taking physics need to learn Ohm’s Law; it’s a predominant formula in electric circuits, explains Whitfield. “Teachers can either give a traditional lecture with diagrams to explain this equation, or, by using the Krisys platform, Ohm’s Law will come to life for their students as they try to figure out the power requirements for their robots.  That’s a powerful way to teach in a 21st century classroom!”

“The same thing is true about such concepts as battery capacity, inductive sensors, pulse-width modulation (PWM) and Faraday’s Law of Induction,” Morgan adds. “The students learn how to control an analog device with a digital system because they are actually doing it; they also understand how sensors on their robots can detect the magnetic field generated by an alternating current in a wire that is taped to the floor to form the race course. They have to be able to receive correct information from their sensor boards so that the algorithm they created and implemented can control their motors and thus the direction and speed of the robot.

Whitfield and Morgan hope to inspire other universities at the conference to consider the Krisys Robot approach to STEM teaching in their teacher preparation courses and to motivate in-service high school teachers and administrators to inquire about integrating these types of STEM activities into their classrooms.  The two also agree that they would be open to any funding sources that express interest.

“All the physical phenomena that STEM teachers have to explain in the classroom can become an engaging, collaborative, hands-on experience for their students,” Morgan states.” Again, that’s what we mean by 21st century teaching.  Having the opportunity to partner with Jennifer Whitfield and her team has provided us a much better understanding of how we can motivate young men and women to want to add more ‘T’ and ‘E’ to their education.”

###

Media contact: Lynn Paris, Division of Marketing & Communications at Texas A&M University;
979-845-6746

Share this story

More…