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Using robotics to build for the future

Kristen B. Morales

October 19, 2015

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The ideas are born in a room where the walls are whiteboards filled with a jumble of ideas.

Sitting around a table, the faculty and staff of Research for the Advancement of Innovative Learning, or RAIL, a research team in the Department of Career and Information Studies, toss around ideas to see if they stick. Their mission is to find a current trend and turn it into a viable educational solution. On any given week, the researchers might toss around a dozen or more concepts.

Like robotics.

Career and information studies associate professor Ikseon Choi turned the robotics idea into a visit by the South Korean company RoboRobo, a manufacturer of educational robotics. What began as a workshop at the College of Education turned into a program for teachers in nearby Barrow County, where administrators were eager to implement more STEM learning into their curriculum.

The visits and workshops developed into a partnership, with RoboRobo providing $20,000 in kits and outfitting a robotics lab at the new Sims Academy of Innovation and Technology in Winder, Georgia. Then RAIL researchers set to work developing curriculum.

"Accessibility of good STEM education is an issue, in the United States and elsewhere. We bring that into our research," says Choi, whose research team created innovative lesson plans that integrate mathematical applications, scientific inquiry, and engineering design while building robots and programming them for a given mission.

In many schools, robotics is an after-school activity—and because not all students can stay after school, not everyone has access to the technology. By integrating robotics into class time, says Choi, all students have the opportunity to try their hand at building and programming. At the same time, they apply in-depth mathematical skills, scientific knowledge, and problem solving.

The curriculum draws from research, and once it's developed, the team re-evaluates and rewrites. Then, the RAIL researchers work with teachers to use STEM-integrated activities for creative problem solving. Along with learning the steps to build a robot, the exercises teach students to think ahead and calculate their plan before executing it.

These workshops take place throughout the year with teachers from multiple counties. "I was a little nervous at first, but they walked us right through," says Jennifer Hannah, a fifth-grade teacher from Barrow County. "I know the kids will pick this up even faster."

And they did. In fact, after discussing problem-solving and brainstorming classroom discussion techniques, the spring curriculum in Barrow County was such a success that it led to the school district's first-ever robotics competition. The students who participated were excited to show off their skills, but for the teachers and researchers who organized the event, it was a happy culmination of more than a year of planning, evaluating, and testing.

"The kids absolutely loved it," says Brian Way, dissemination specialist with RAIL. "There was so much excitement; it was a pleasant surprise to have the room that full."

Choi and the RAIL team continue to develop new relationships, both in Georgia and internationally. The future is in STEM-integrated education, he says, and robotics is one way to introduce children to creative problem-solving experiences.

"Now, we are not only looking at Barrow County," he says, "but across the United States and beyond."