STEAM Education & Teacher Professional Development
Getting Trained to Teach Robotics
This professional development opportunity helps you with the basics and even includes freely available curriculum.
- By Dian Schaffhauser
High School offers four robotics courses. The
introductory courses draw about 20 students each and are taught twice
a semester; the more advanced ones attract 14 to 17 students. Both
sets of classes are seeing a steady rise each year in the number of
1,300-student Pennsylvania high school uses robotics "as a hook,
because it's fun, it's interesting, kids like it," said
technology education teacher Jeff Newsom. "Yet all the
underlying things that we're teaching them can be applied to so many
other things — from cell phones to printers. It gives students the
ability to not just create a program on a screen that plays a game,
but to create a program that does something physical."
the high school decided to add robotics to its curriculum nine years
ago, Newsom knew he'd need professional development to get the
program off the ground. Without the help of teacher training and
access to free curriculum produced by the Robotics
Academy at Carnegie Mellon University, he said, "I
wouldn't be where I am now."
of a (Robotic) Movement
Robotics Academy has been around since the early 2000s, as part of an
educational outreach program begun by the National
Robotics Engineering Center, where it's still housed.
Then-director Robin Shoop wanted to support FIRST LEGO teams.
Shoop ran his own FIRST team as an after-school addition to a tech ed
program he taught in nearby Schenley High School.
that's where it all started," said Ross Higashi, the Academy's
head of educational outreach. The Center began developing resources
to help the teams "do better and raise the level of
competition." That morphed into summer robotics camps for
students, which were, the fledgling Academy realized, full "every
single time." The logical next step for increasing its impact:
"instead of having camps for kids, having camps for teachers."
the Academy delivers training, develops curriculum, organizes
conferences, runs robotics competitions and produces research on the
impact of robotics training in computer science and STEM education.
It has also gotten into the business of certification and will soon
be doing micro-credentialing for students and teachers. According to
statistics kept by the academy, it has trained and certified more
than 3,000 teachers, reached a million students every day with its
resources and has had its curriculum picked up by 16,000 schools.
Robot Drives the Training
competitions come in a few primary flavors, each of them with their
own followings in education. FIRST,
with almost 30,000 teams, is built around LEGO robots and uses
real-world problems on the field of play. Kids participate at
different levels depending on their ages. It's a "spectacular
program," said Higashi, but can also be "expensive relative to
others." For example, the robots for the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC), intended for use by high school teams, he noted, have a more "industrial size" to them (they can weigh up to 120 pounds) and a "five-digit price tag. "
whose contests draw 11,000 student teams from middle school through
college and use robots that are smaller (up to 20-plus pounds) and
less expensive. On the other hand, he noted, the LEGO robot tends to
be "simpler, more accessible," while it takes a "lot
of technical knowledge" to make VEX robots work,
there are plenty of teachers who aren't interested in the
competitions, it's an important distinction to understand because
they'll have to choose which direction they're going in order to buy
the gear they'll need and get the right professional development for
the platform they've chosen.
"technology is technology" and the same concepts underlie
any robotics course said Higashi, there are "enough
idiosyncrasies in each platform that you'll want to finetune it."
It's "logistically and conceptually impractical" in class,
he pointed out, to have pairs of people working side by side on
training at the academy, for example, currently covers
one of four options:
VEX EDR V5
- VEX EDR Cortex
- VEX IQ
- LEGO Mindstorms
the summer, these are available for $1,099 in a face-to-face format
in Pittsburgh. The courses run four and a half days. An online format
for each is also available for $599; during the summer, those follow
the same week-long schedule. Or, during other parts of the year,
participants get online for two-hour sessions weekly over the course
of a month and do the rest of the training on their own and through
online forums. In districts where multiple people need PD, the
Academy will send an instructor on site for $2,000 per day plus
expenses for working with up to 12 teachers.
isn't only teachers who take the Academy classes. Many of the people
who attend do so as "mentors," individuals who are
interested in working with students outside of school to help teams
participate in those robotic competitions. Some of these are tech
professionals; others aren't. While some teachers, such as Newsom,
come from school tech programs, others arrive knowing very little.
mix isn't a problem. Everybody is paired off in class — just like
the students will be when those teachers return to their classrooms —
and they move from "square one," said Higashi, "to a
pretty decent level of thinking through conditional statements
programming logic and the process of getting there."
classes are all workshop-style with a bit of lecture, a bit of
"student hat-teacher hat," but the bulk of time is spent
learning about the robots in the same way students will. Teachers are
taken through the same curriculum that will be used by the students,
"so they understand where the stumbling blocks are, places where
there's going to be a gotcha, or what it's like to use the
curriculum," said Higashi.
consist of lecture, videos and self-paced activities. They're not
designed to fit into a 50-minute format, said Higashi, because "once
you get past relatively trivial concepts, they don't fit predictively
all, he explained, people progress at very different rates in
different parts of the curriculum. The teachers sprint through the
pedagogy aspects while the software engineers zoom through the
coding. "As a consequence, across our 12 stations for our 24
teachers, they go at very different paces. No two workstations are
going to be at the exact same place, and that's also part of the
modeling that we do as teachers, so they understand it's also how
their students are going to work — not at the same pace."
People who are faster, he added, can tackle a series of optional
tasks — just like in the classroom — while others focus on the
the teachers don't face when they show up for their professional
development is a "pile of components." In fact, Higashi
said, one of the first topics covered in the training is whether
students should be given prebuilt robots or build the robots
not actually a right answer," he added. "This is one of
those first places where teachers really need to think through their
own classroom scenarios. If you're a teacher who has a tech-focused
class and you have the whole semester to work with, then maybe the
students should build the robots to have ownership of the process and
understand the inner mechanisms better. If you're a teacher who has
one week and your goal is to get to some programming logic concepts,
then no, just hand them robots prebuilt."
Robotics Curriculum and Course Management
curriculum, on the other hand, is a simpler matter. It's free and
openly available on
the academy's website. The organization also includes
a teacher platform that acts like a modified learning management
Network, as it's called, lets teachers create accounts
for students; it also acts as a gradebook for tracking progress
through courses; it delivers certification to the students as they
complete modules; and it serves as a portfolio of the student's work.
A new photo-upload feature lets the student provide evidence of
physical learning, such as how well connectors were crafted for that
soldering activity, the results of which land in that portfolio. A
basic account, which allows a teacher to maintain three groups of up
to 30 students per group, is free. "Premium access" is $300
annually and allows for unlimited numbers of groups. The reason for
the paid tier: "Somebody has to keep the lights on for that
thing," said Higashi.
Academy issues two different kinds of certification — one for
anybody who completes the course, and the other for teachers who take
a certification exam afterwards. That's important for any teacher who
intends for his or her students to get certified. Only certified
teachers can issue credentials to students, which currently consists
only of a credential for students who finish an introduction to
Academy is also working with the Advanced
Robotics Manufacturing Institute to develop a set of
micro-credentials in robotic technician work and the accompanying
curriculum. These will cover units on electronics, mechanics,
fabrication and related topics. The results are intended to serve as
a "pre-apprenticeship level of knowledge and skills," said
Higashi. Possibly, he noted, those will eventually be transferable
for credits to a community college or help a student gain an
apprenticeship at a local company.
the Robotics Academy Can't Teach
the heart of all of this PD and curriculum is a worthy goal: bringing
more science and tech, engineering and math to schools in a format
that appeals to a wide swath of students, not just the ones who are
naturally drawn to STEM topics. And that requires effort from both
sides — the Academy and the teachers.
PD mostly covers as a default the programming and pedagogy that are
relevant to understanding robotics," said Higashi. At the same
time, however, he recognizes that while "we're certainly experts
in robotics education, [teachers] are the experts in their kids and
their neighborhoods. I wouldn't presume to be the one to tell them
how to make that adaptation. It's up to the teacher to frame it in a
way that's appealing to all the students they have."
from the Classroom
Newsom, tech teacher at Penn-Trafford High School, is quick with
advice for educators new to teaching robotics:
robotics system that's "well established," he said.
"The last thing you want to do is invest a lot of money into a
technology that may not be there in a few years."
But plan for
upgrades. Right now, Newsom is facing an upgrade from a legacy
VEX platform to the newest one, which means he needs to learn new
programming (he's heading to the Academy this summer for the latest
training) and has to refresh his robots. "It's just like a
school buying computers. You have to keep them updated."
Figure out your goal. Is it just to expose students to the
basic concepts or go more in-depth? Will you be preparing students
so that eventually they can build their own robots? Will you be
competing? All of those require a different level of commitment and
PD, "in order to teach it."
your professional development options. "Don't go blind into
one of these classes," he insisted. "Getting exposure to
the topics and having curriculum from which to work helps you out."
students for failure. As Newsom explained, "I tell my
students, you're going to fail 20 times before you succeed; you may
try 15 different things before you even get it to kind of work.
That's where the learning happens."
have to be the expert. "I'll introduce a lesson, but I'm
more of a facilitator," said Newsom. "Then as students are
working, I can go around and help them individually."