STEAM Education

Developing Robotic Kids

Robotics programs across the country are appealing to non-STEM-oriented students too, even as they learn science, tech, engineering and math (along with a whole bunch of soft skills) on the side.

Robotics programs across the country are appealing to non-STEM-oriented students too, even as they learn science, tech, engineering and math (along with a whole bunch of soft skills) on the side. 

Rose Lam is heading to her first year of university. She'll be attending the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus, with the intention when it's time of declaring graphic design as her major. And what's interesting about that major, said her mom, Krispen Lam, is that along with drawing, color and visual presentation classes, she'll also be required to take computer science in the mix. "It's assumed that you will be doing website design, and you need at a minimum to know how to talk with the people doing the coding."

That kind of requirement doesn't worry Rose. She's been primed for that since she was in fourth grade—and, really, even earlier—because, during nearly her entire elementary, middle and high school career, she's been a part of the FIRST program, FIRST is an international nonprofit founded to inspire youth through robotics to participate in science, technology, engineering and math.

After nine years of direct participation (and two years before that, when Rose first started watching her dad, Norton, lead a school robotics team as a volunteer), daughter, mother and father are more convinced than ever that the robotics program provides a home even—and especially—for students who have no obvious affinity for STEM. And while teachers don't have to lift a finger, they get the benefit of student participation.

A Job for Everybody

The team Rose pulled together that first year by calling five friends was named the "Ponytail Posse." Three members, including Rose, stayed with it during the entire nine-year duration. Over that period, the robotics became more complicated, and so did the work undertaken by the team, evolving from making posters in the earliest years to creating business plans and pitching to sponsors for monetary support in the later years. Through those years the roles also changed. Rose had always been a team member who handled programming (first, block programming and later on, Java); but by the time she reached high school she was less interested in being part of the robot-building (which involves working with metal, including welding) and drawn more to the marketing and social media work required by the team. That's how she got into graphic design, she pointed out.

"When people think of robotics teams in FIRST," Rose said, what they imagine is "nerds programming robots in the basement, doing all that high tech, 'science-y' and math stuff." But really, she emphasizes, "Being on a robotics team, there's a place for everybody. It's like a small business. You need different types of people with different talents to come together and make the whole thing work. There are people on robotics teams who do nothing but marketing and do nothing like public speaking and promoting to their sponsors. That has nothing to do with robots, but it's still an equally important part of the team. That's where I fit in. We have a couple of team members who are like that. They don't really do anything with the robots. They never touch the robots. But our contributions to the team are still equally important as all of those engineers and programmers."

How FIRST Works

Mom Krispen is a library paraprofessional at Rose's former district, Mounds View Public Schools, in Shoreview. Not long ago she introduced her kindergarten center to FIRST, and now every kindergartner in the district has the opportunity to do robotics. At her school there are 10 teams, each with six students. But altogether in her district, there are 70 teams for the youngest students, up from a total of zero two years ago. "We started in one school, very slowly grew that, and the other principals wanted to hitch onto that star," noted Krispen. "And then the past two years that's what happened."

Most of the schools in the Mounds View district deliver the robotics as an outside program—not even as an after-school event. Each team is parent-led, and it's all laid out into 12 weeks of meeting activities, carefully explained step-by-step in a FIRST-provided guide. "It's laid out so simply," said Krispen, "that anybody can follow it. All you have to do is be able to read." Some teams meet every other week, others twice a week. Some gather in private homes and others meet at school.

A Primer on FIRST

Last year nonprofit FIRST reached 530,000 students in 95 countries, who worked on 61,000 teams to produce 44,900 robots. The structure of FIRST has four levels, broken out by grades.

FIRST Lego League Jr., for grades K-4, ages 6-10. Teams are given a challenge based on a real-world theme (this year's is "Mission Moon"), that requires them to build models and create a "show me" poster depicting their research journey. Teams are encouraged to gather together to share their projects and experiences with family and friends or at a locally organized expo.

FIRST LEGO League, for grades 4-8, ages 9-16. Annual challenges get students into authentic scientific research (this year's it's "Into Orbit") and hands-on robotics design using LEGO Mindstorms kits. After a minimum of eight weeks, the season ends with a high-energy, sports-like tournament. The idea is to show kids how science and technology contribute to solving real-world issues.

FIRST Tech Challenge, for grades 7-12, ages 12-18. Teams design, build, program and operate robots (about the size of a microwave, according to FIRST) to play a floor game in a multi-team "alliance" format. This year's theme: "Rover Ruckus."

FIRST Robotics Competition, for grades 9-12, ages 14-18. Teams get six weeks to build and program a robot (that weighs in at 120 pounds) to compete in the game using a kit of parts provided by FIRST and a standard set of rules. This year's challenge is named "Destination: Deep Space." Under strict rules and limited time and resources, teams must raise funds, design a team "brand" and develop their teamwork skills. Participants are eligible to apply for $80 million-plus in college scholarships.

FIRST provides all kinds of support to simplify the job of an all-volunteer corps delivering robotics education to students. For example, Krispen, who called herself "the coordinator of coordinators," couldn't do her job with FIRST's help. "Because I'm coordinating for 70 teams, I'm constantly calling FIRST and asking questions." The organization provides videos, tutorials, posters, logos, flyers and replacement pieces when something goes missing in the kits, she said. When a principal calls to say she needs to make a speech to new parents and wants to introduce them to the robotics program, Krispen can head to the FIRST website and "usually it's already there."

Some schools work through their parent-teacher association; others provide a staff member, such as a science specialist, who handles handing out registration forms, taking them in and setting up the teams.

Hooking Students into Academics

Why are educators so excited? A program where students can go play with LEGOS and make LEGOS move "is so fun and exciting, a kid who teachers have a hard time reaching is willing to jump into that and be part of that team," she observed. "All of a sudden, they're realizing, 'Hey, I'm using simple machines to get my robots to do things, and we just had a simple machines unit in science.' It's a way to hook them back into the academics."

As a result of exposure to LEGO League Junior, Krispen noted, "I've seen kids' lives completely turn around." As she explained, "I've had kindergarten teachers tell me that they can pick out the kids who have been through the programs because of their ability to work as a team and do compromise, take turns and listen to other people's ideas and be respectful, which is very hard to teach kindergartners. It's all done with LEGOS to suck the kids in. That's what tricks them into doing it."

At the middle school and high school levels, added Norton, students who participate "speak in front of adults at the competition and at the demonstrations and to companies to try to get sponsors." As an example, his daughter's team, the Ponytail Posse was "always impressing adults about how well-spoken they were." The teachers also notice it when those students are doing presentations, he said. "There's a marked difference between kids that do FIRST and the kids that don't."

Krispen often hears from teachers in the upper grades (grades four and higher) that participating students have a "stick-tuitiveness. They're willing to try over and over even when they fail." She thinks that comes from working with the technology. "You could build that robot perfectly, and it's still going to fail. So you keep trying to perfect it, but you [learn] that failure is part of the process. That's something that they try to teach in the schools, but it's really hard. That carries over into almost everything else—math class, English class."

It's true that as students get older, some of them drift away, which is "totally fine, according to Krispen. "I've known lots of [students] who leave and then come back in later years. Lots of kids stay in it for the social aspects, and that's fine too. There is a place for absolutely everyone in the program, no matter what your skill level, no matter what your interest is."

"Everything has Melded Together"

Some observers might suggest that Rose Lam is an anomaly. After all, her mother works in school libraries (frequently, a hotbed of tech innovation) and her father is a manager for teams that do mobile development. Surely, other art and design students or those interested in English, social studies, cooking, business or other non-STEM subjects wouldn't have that ingrained propensity to be drawn to robotics. You'd never convince the Lam family of that.

"Maybe in the past we were able to say that the person who works in the field of science, that's what they do; the people who do the art or entrepreneurship, that's what they do. And you could see them as separate. These days everything has melded together. The defining lines are a lot blurrier," said Krispen. "People are being asked to do more and more in their careers, and they need to have skills all over the place in many different fields. Those are the people who are really going to succeed and be able to innovate."

"The biggest thing that links STEM with all the arts is innovation," added Rose. "In both, you have the value of innovation and new ideas and the willingness to explore and persevere. My friends may be building robots to learn the idea of perseverance, but I might be designing a banner. And being comfortable with communicating with people who have different skills sets and different experiences than you, that's very valuable — and something I definitely learned from being on a robotics team. I think these are skills that everyone should have."

Advice for Starting a Robotics Program at Your School

Start small. "We've seen many schools in our district try to jump in and start [a bunch of] FIRST League teams all at once," explained Rose Lam. "Then eventually the program fizzles out because the coordinator leaves and they don't have enough support or there isn't enough interest in maintaining so many teams. Start small and then grow it up from there as the interest grows."

Go for grants to cover costs. Krispen and Rose Lam worked with the LEGO Foundation and FIRST, which donated a bunch of season passes (which include the LEGO kits, engineering notebooks, team meeting guide and program administrator guide). "We had this big plan of how we were going to slowly grow the robotics programs in our district," recalled Rose. "But thanks to that grant, we were able to immediately implement it."

Call on companies. "It's amazing," said Krispen. "We have companies here in Shoreview where we live, and they're like, 'Oh, yeah, we'll buy you a robot kit,' because their future people are the ones who are right now in elementary school. They want to make sure these kids have the skills necessary to be able to come back and work with them as employees. That's why they're willing to invest."

Pull in parents. "It's the volunteers that really make it run," noted Krispen. "That always seems to be the weak spot. You really need to find someone who's willing to coordinate it and be able to run it." She advised hitting up the parent-teacher association at the school, because many of them thrive on supporting projects like this—with both money and people.

Enlist district support. When teams are coordinated by a district employee, schools don't have to rely on a parent who could "graduate out of the program" and then have it collapse, explained Krispen. "I keep telling everybody, until I'm fired or retired, I'm going to be doing this." That may require the principal paying a stipend to a person willing to take on the "coordinator of coordinators" effort, but the advantage is a "very stable basis" of support.