Building STEM Talent Through Innovation and Fun!
The science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workforce of the future is sitting in today’s K-12 classrooms, attending summer camps, and participating in after-school programs. How do we attract more youth—particularly those currently underrepresented in STEM fields such as girls and minorities—to explore the marvels of engineering and science, and to be active participants in the creation of solutions for–and not merely a witness to—the great challenges our global neighborhood faces, from environmental cleanup, to safe and efficient energy production, to improvements in healthcare.
The WaterBotics program is one vehicle that has demonstrated increased student interest and enjoyment of science and engineering study and careers among middle and high school students. Based on results from a statewide program that reached more than 2,600 middle and high school students in New Jersey in 2006-09, student learning of science concepts and programming also increased (McGrath et al, 2009, 2008). These findings have provided the impetus to launch the WaterBotics program nationally.
What is WaterBotics?
WaterBotics is the underwater robotics curriculum and program that is being disseminated to four regions through a National Science Foundation grant, in collaboration with national and state partners. Its goal is to provide hands-on experiences for middle and high school age youth to engineering design, information technology tools, and science concepts, and to increase awareness and interest in engineering and IT careers.
The curriculum, which can be used either in traditional classroom settings or in after-school and summer-camp situations, is problem-based, requiring teams of students to work together to design, build, test, and redesign underwater robots, or “bots” made of LEGO and other components. Students use the NXT and LEGO MindstormsTM software to program their robots to maneuver in the water, thereby gaining valuable experience with computer programming. Teams must complete a series of increasingly sophisticated challenges which culminates with a final challenge that integrates learning from the prior challenges.
Who Should Participate?
WaterBotics is ideal for girls and boys ages 12-18. The curriculum has also been used with undergraduate engineering students and adult learners as well. The curriculum is flexible, and can be used in an intensive, one-week summer camp experience or as a sequence of science or technology classes in middle and high school. Our research has shown WaterBotics to be engaging for both girls and boys, and for students ranging from special education to gifted and talented. Instructors are able to tailor the curriculum according to their needs and objectives, and to the level of sophistication of their students.
Many students have used LEGOs before, and even those that haven't find them easy to learn and intuitive to work with. This makes it possible for them to quickly construct prototypes, test them out, make appropriate changes, and test again. Being able to quickly progress from an idea to a working prototype is critical to the project's effective implementation, especially with students who have never previously experienced design or engineering activities. Plus, the huge variety of LEGO pieces available allows for a nearly infinite amount of solutions to a given task. This enables students to be highly creative and innovative, and results in an amazing variety of bots by the project's end.
As recent headlines have shown, engineers are increasingly called upon to deal with complex, non-traditional, and previously unforeseen challenges. The underwater environment of the WaterBotics program gives students a sense of both the known and unknown challenges that real engineers face every day.
For those students who have participated in land-based robotics projects, the complexities of the underwater environment present unique demands that challenge even the most experienced robot designers. Tasks such as getting the bot to float or sink, keeping it upright, compensating for the effects of water pushing against it, and getting it to move in three-dimensions, are novel challenges that correspond to specific science topics, such as buoyancy, drag, stability, and three-dimensional movement. Experiential learning of these concepts, combined with online simulations and other resources, provide students with hands-on and minds-on resources to master these topics. After completing the final challenge, teams typically exhibit a tremendous sense of accomplishment!