Skype Unites Classrooms for STEM Learning

When two high schools 37 miles apart wanted to team up to build robots, they turned to the cloud to facilitate communication, save time, and reduce costs. They got a whole lot more than they bargained for.

S*M*A*S*H isn't your average group of high school students, not even your average group of robot makers. The acronym stands for Super-nerds Making AdvancedSolutions through Heuristics. The self-titled S*M*A*S*H students design and build a robot over the course of several months each year.

As if that weren't challenging enough, the students don't even work together in the same classroom. They're split between two schools--Spruce Creek and University high schools--at opposite ends of Volusia County, FL. What brought them together, and created the challenge of communicating across a long distance, is a robotics program offered through the Career and Technical Education academies. (For more on that, see our upcoming May print issue.)

Robot Building Ala Skype
This is the first of a two-part series about the use of cloud computing to allow students at two schools in Volusia County, FL, to work jointly to prepare for a robotics competition. The second part, which will appear in
the June issue of District Cloud Computing, features the experience of a high school student who was able to use Skype as a means to coach fellow students in a school 37 miles away.

"We competed in the F.I.R.S.T. Robotic Competition, which is an international competition," said Dru Urquhart, a computer programming teacher and director of the Spruce Creek Academy of Information Technology and Robotics. (F.I.R.S.T is an acronym of For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.) "A county of our size cannot support more than one robotics team, so…we've invited other high schools to join if they have interested students."

Urquhart's husband Fred, a mechanical engineer and robotics instructor at University High--37 miles away--teaches the other participating class.

"It was not feasible for [students] to come over every afternoon and work with us," Dru Urquhart said. "That's when we instituted Skype between the two schools."

Videoconferencing tools like Skype are a staple for many businesses, so, Fred Urquhart wondered, why couldn't a couple of schools use it too?

The tasks the robot must perform are announced in January, and each team has to figure out what kind of machine to build in time for the regional competitions in March. S*M*A*S*H begins with a week of daily meetings between teachers and students at both schools shortly after the winter break to discuss the design, set priorities, and divvy up the work. Each group gathers in its respective "build lab" and a video camera projects the image of the other class gathered in its lab onto a large screen. Then the conversation begins.

Skype connects the two groups for most of the school day throughout the weeks of preparation. The Skype call begins at noon via four computers, one in each build lab and one in each of the teachers' offices. The result is a split-screen projection showing all four spaces at the same time that allows one-on-one conversations or large-group communication.

Fred Urquhart said it also allows him to be in two places at once, a benefit anyone who works with kids can appreciate.

"Even though kids are around the corner in the lab, they know that I can see them at all times," he said. As an added bonus, every student has access to two teachers, instead of just one.

To Fred Urquhart's surprise, it's also helping the students pick up some social skills.

"They can immediately see the expression on the other person's face on that computer screen if they've been too abrupt, if they've misspoken, or if they just said something that didn't make sense," Fred Urquhart said. "They can instantly see the body language and the facial expression of the receiver, which they certainly can't do on the phone or by text. It's fostering a lot of communication etiquette and it's important for them to learn that."

One challenge for the students was getting the attention of a teacher. Even though both teachers connect their desktop computers to the Skype call, there are times when both are away from a video camera.

So, the programming students did what programmers do: They wrote a program that solved the problem.

"The text messaging program is a small Visual Basic.NET program the students wrote," Dru Urquhart says. "The icon sits on the task bar at the bottom of the screen. When kids want to get our attention, they click on the icon, type in the message and hit 'send.' The program sends the message to the teacher's phone as an SMS message."

The only downside Dru Urquhart sees is the automatic "time out" after four hours. She pays the Skype Premium subscription out of her own pocket. That subscription allows the group video calling and screen sharing, making the real-time group instruction and individual guidance possible. Nobody has to drive across town or wait until the end of the school day to follow up.

"I can bring them all into my computer lab, put the big screen up there, and her whole computer lab can now be looking at my whole computer lab. They're actually raising their hand with questions and things like that. 'We need to do this with the robot. The robot needs this capability.' They'll get in classroom-to-classroom discussions online."

The first year S*M*A*S*H used Skype, in 2011, the team placed 15th overall, missing the cutoff to go to the Florida state competition. This year, S*M*A*S*H made it to state, where the No. 1 team chosen went on to a national round of competition. S*M*A*S*H didn't win that honor this year, but its chances are improving.

"This year we were amazingly prepared because we had that extra time that we didn't have to wait on problem solving," Dru Urquhart says. "We also were awarded the Imagery Award for attractiveness in engineering and outstanding visual aesthetic integration from the machine to the team appearance."

About the Author

Margo Pierce is a Cincinnati-based freelance writer.