More Than The Robot

Integrating student competitions into the classroom.

GUEST COLUMN | by Lauren Tabolinksky

CREDIT MathWorks.pngStudent competitions provide hands-on learning opportunities to children. In engineering student competitions, elementary and middle school kids are challenged to design and build a robot that will play against other teams from around the world. The competitions mix fun with education and, in the end, kids soak up skills that prepare them better for the future.

Robotics student competitions “prepare students for the real world, where they will be working with a team on a project with a schedule and budget,” said Gary Garber, a physics instructor at Boston University Academy who has been involved with student competitions for nearly 20 years.

Knowing the value of student competitions isn’t new; the challenge is developing curriculum that integrates the long-term benefits of student competitions into the day-to-day classroom.

These competitions teach kids both the technical skills and “softer” skills like collaboration and communication, Garber said. “Teaching collaboration and communication is much harder than teaching programming and mechanics. It’s more than the robot. It’s entrepreneurship. It’s getting kids to work alongside their peers to create something they are proud to share with others.”

Taking It a Step Further

Knowing the value of student competitions isn’t new; the challenge is developing curriculum that integrates the long-term benefits of student competitions into the day-to-day classroom.

Here Garber teamed up with Sandeep Hiremath, an education technology evangelist and student competition team mentor at MathWorks, maker of mathematical computing software MATLAB and Simulink.

Garber and Hiremath connected through VEX Robotics, a competition where they lead and support student teams. VEX is a worldwide competition for middle and high school students who design and build robots to compete in game-based engineering challenges. The challenges test both the tele-operated and autonomous behavior of the robots on the game field.

“We look at the job market, particularly in biomedical engineering, and there’s a huge need for kids to be able to code. Robotics is an easy way for kids to get excited about coding,” Garber said.

To support this need, they developed a robotics curriculum that incorporates Simulink, which, Garber said, is a very visual programming language, opening up programming to kids of all ages and backgrounds, including those with learning disabilities such as dyslexia. “Thinking graphically is easier.”

For the teachers, Hiremath said the team is working with the Robotics, Education & Competition Foundation (REC), the organization that hosts the VEX Robotics student competitions. REC will help in reaching the teachers already involved in the student competitions, enabling the teachers to integrate their learnings from student competitions as well as the software and resources via the curriculum into their classroom on a regular basis.

For the curriculum, the focus is more on autonomous robots, Garber said. In student competitions, students program the autonomous tasks of the robots but they are primarily working in the joystick mode. The curriculum expands on the knowledge they’ve obtained in the student competition and focuses on autonomous robots and sensor feedback, he said.

The curriculum challenges kids to determine how to track sensor data and design a controller that responds to that sensor data, Hiremath said.

“Having the perspective of a teacher (like Garber) was very important to the development of the curriculum,” Hiremath said. Garber could provide the insight on what makes sense to teach in a classroom and what’s appropriate for each learning level, he said.

Lauren Tabolinksky is Student Competitions Manager at MathWorks. Getting Started with MATLAB and Simulink for VEX Robotics Courseware is available for free.

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