Michael D. Clark reports:
The hands that one day help American students close the international gap in math and science skills may be those of their homemade robots.
Robotics clubs in grades K-12 are growing in popularity across the region and nation. Educators and high-tech experts embrace the mechanized invasion, saying the task-oriented competitions require science and math abilities and may eventually boost the nation’s international standing in those skills.
“This is a good thing, and the kids are passionate about this stuff,” says Dan Humpert, director for the University of Cincinnati’s Center for Robotics Research.
Patrick Wensing, co-chair of a national robotics student activities board and a researcher on robotics at Ohio State University, says, “It’s crazy what these kids can do. And if we can get to the point where more of them are learning science and math, it will be good for our country and good for our economy.’’
The United States could use the boost.
For years, American students have lagged behind those of many industrialized countries. This month’s release of the 2011 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study revealed that students in Singapore, South Korea, Japan, Finland and other nations still outperform American fourth- and eighth-graders.
A 2011 study by Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance ranked the U.S. behind 31 other countries in math proficiency. Similar studies for years have shown similarly low rankings for science and technology aptitude among American youth.
The broader appeal of robotics clubs, already popular internationally, might eventually help change that.
Humpert estimates there are about 300 elementary and high-school robotics teams in Greater Cincinnati, twice as many as three years ago.
Fred Strange, a staffer at Grant’s Lick Elementary in Campbell County, is a veteran robotics team coach.
“Ten years ago there were about 20 teams in Northern Kentucky, and now there are about 150-180,’’ he says.
Earlier this year a team composed of Lakota, Mason and Loveland high-school students finished seventh among 2,000 domestic and international competitors in a robotics championship in St. Louis.
Tournaments – spread throughout the year – resemble loud sporting events, complete with cheering parents, play-by-play announcers and colorful team outfits.
The center of attention are the hand-built robots, which are created from age-appropriate kits from the Lego toy manufacturer. The small, motorized robots can be assembled and their computers programmed to perform a set of about a dozen, common physical tasks.
It’s not so much how the robots do, but what students learn while they build and control them, says Wensing and other educators.
“Robots have a natural capability to get their imagination going, and it captures a kid’s attention immediately,” says Wensing, who said he never considered an engineering career until he built his first robot from a kit as a child.
The rage in robotics also fits nicely into the national and local emphasis on K-12 schools’ developing stronger STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – curricula, Wensing says. And robots may open a door for more girls to consider tech or engineering careers, he says.
Blue Ash Elementary fourth-grader Ashma Prakash may someday be an engineer, but right now she’s just thrilled to be part of the Time Travelers robotics team.
She is one of three girls and five boys on the Sycamore Schools team that recently saw its invention roll under radio control through a series of physical tasks in the raucous gym at Winton Woods Intermediate School in Forest Park.
The action on the table – robots picking up small objects, maneuvering routes and even rolling a small ball toward inch-high bowling pins – is simultaneously broadcast live on a giant TV screen. More than 200 parents and fans fill the gym’s stands and cheer as a play-by-play announcer calls the action like a mechanized sporting event.
“It’s a great experience,” Ashma says. “You get to actually program your robot. You make a lot of friends, and it inspires you to dream.”
The attraction for young people is understandable, says Sally McClaskey, an Ohio 4-H program coordinator who works for the statewide STEM initiative through Ohio State University’s county extension offices.
“It’s a generational thing because our kids are growing up in technology. It intrigues kids and it is very hands on,” McClaskey says.
Robotics coach John Trygier, who helped the local team to win seventh place in the international competition, paused from a recent work session where the teens excitedly fine-tuned their robot.
“This is their varsity sport, and being able to go to the world championship was like going to the Super Bowl,” Trygier says. “And best of all, they don’t realize they are learning while they are having fun.”