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Ministry of Education.
Kaua e rangiruatia te hāpai o te hoe; e kore to tātou waka e ū ki uta

VEX Educate Award

Teaching inquiry

How could I use robotics to inspire students to consider Technology, science, and engineering as possible career directions?

Introduction

Glenfield College won the VEX Robotics Educate Award at the 2013 VEX Robotics World Championships for the way they have integrated robotics into their school programmes.

Teacher Dave Aston says robotics is a highly engaging and effective context for learning in many areas. He has also found that using robotics can provide many other benefits for students' learning, including:

  • facilitating the development of key competencies
  • demonstrating the value of co-operation
  • providing opportunities to inspire others.     

Strategy

Background

When visiting Atlanta for the FIRST Robotics Competition in 2009, Dave Aston from Glenfield College learnt that there was likely to be a future worldwide shortage of engineers and scientists. Dean Kamen of FIRST promoted the message that robotics was an ideal context to capture students’ interest and encourage them to pursue careers in these fields. Dave resolved to develop an interest in robotics at Glenfield College.

“[I could see that] robotics is a fun way of getting students to use engineering and mathematics outside the classroom situation.”

Dave Aston

Introducing VEX Robotics

Dave’s first move was to introduce the idea of VEX robotics, and students entering VEX competitions, at school assemblies. Two students who had travelled with him to Atlanta assisted with the presentations. Letters informing parents that robotics was being introduced as a new extracurricular activity were then sent home. A club was established, and students were soon coming along and hanging out in the electronics room during their breaks – chatting and working together on their robots. Current numbers in the club are 15–20.

Robotics in the curriculum

An NCEA level 2 electronics course had earlier been established at Glenfield using The Skills Organisation electronics standards for assessment purposes. When introducing a level 3 programme, Dave worked alongside Ross Peterson from The Skills Organisation to modify their programme so that microcontrollers became the focus.

“Some electronics teachers focus on PICAXE and Arduino but I find that microcontrollers instantly engage students. Students who have not touched electronics before get into microcontrollers and I see their eyes light up and their programming skills go through the roof.”

Dave Aston

Robotics as a “metadiscipline”

Dave sees robotics as a “metadiscipline”, with all four STEM subjects (science, Technology, engineering and mathematics) playing integral roles.

Every opportunity is taken to include robotics in school programmes. Dave has even used robotics as a context for teaching biology students about the life processes that all living organisms have in common (MRS GREN).

“The assignment asked students to identify living and non-living from a series of pictures, and justify their decisions. One picture was of one of our competition robots. The robot moves, grows (at times), needs nutrients, and senses its environment. It therefore exhibits some of the qualities of a living thing. But it does not reproduce itself. Does it excrete?”

Dave Aston

Dave also uses robots to teach physics concepts in all his senior science and physics classes because they provide a context which students can relate to, and that they can touch.

“Sometimes we will have four robots at work with students in the class as they consider a concept or principle.”

Dave Aston

Managing costs

Although VEX Robotics is deliberately designed to be affordable, participation with competition robots is not cheap. But participating schools find ways of managing the costs so that they are not a barrier for keen students.

At Glenfield, funding comes from a variety of sources. Components purchased for electronics classes from the school budget are made available for loan to VEX students. A grant made it possible to purchase a “field” – the area in which the robots need to perform. Some of the field elements required for the next competition are bought directly from VEX, and Dave makes other field elements himself. Fundraising ventures such as sponsorship and sausage sizzles are necessary to supplement whatever the school can contribute.

A feature of the VEX championship is that a new challenge is set every year, meaning that new robots need to be built. The fact that all parts are recyclable is an important factor in containing costs – students pull the previous year’s robots apart and reuse the parts for the next year. Of course, every new competition also requires the purchase of new components.

To ensure that as many students as possible can participate, VEX NZ has game components and fields available for sharing. When there is a “scrimmage” (team competitions using the current VEX Robotics game), students bring their own if they have them.

Gracious professionalism

New Zealand VEX Robotics promotes a culture of “gracious professionalism” – sharing and working together rather than winning at all costs.

“At the nationals, some new students turned up and their robot wouldn’t go. Two students and teachers from other schools provided encouragement, suggestions, and parts. So instead of giving up and not coming back, the students went home that evening and rebuilt their robot so that it was ready for the next day’s competition.”

Dave Aston

Students in the Glenfield VEX club are encouraged to follow their own interests. For example, a student who was interested in prototyping used a CAD programme at home to produce multiple iterations of robots – not always VEX robots. There are also always students who do not necessarily want to build robots but who are keen to support and promote the club by providing media coverage (for example, movies, posters, and photographs).

The Glenfield team created this video about their trip to the 2013 awards.

Inspiring others

When Dave first attended the VEX World Championship, he was particularly taken by the wording of the Chairman’s award:

"The team that best embodies the organisation’s mission: to inspire greater respect for science and Technology in our culture and encourage more young people to pursue careers in those fields.”

Since then, he and his students have taken their robots into kindergartens and primary and intermediate schools, where the children have been able to try controlling them. Dave finds that this experience opens students’ eyes, markets Glenfield College, and encourages an interest in robotics.

VEX excellence 2013 (Word 2007, 13 MB)

Outcomes

The VEX Robotics Educate Award

Students accepting the award

Students accepting the award

The Glenfield VEX team won the Educate Award at the 2013 World Championship.

“The ‘Educate Award’ is given to a team that has been able to successfully integrate VEX Robotics into their Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) curriculums. The winning team will demonstrate to the judges that VEX Robotics is not just an extracurricular activity, but a valuable tool used in their school to teach across many subjects in the classroom. At the World Championship, this award will be judged based on a 500-word online submission and subsequent team interviews.”

VEX Robotics

Educate award submission (Word 2007, 13 KB)

Former student Stephanie Crossley, winner of the New Zealand Mentor of the Year Award at the New Zealand VEX Robotics National Championship, prepared the submission. In the team interviews that followed (no teachers allowed), a student mentioned the MRS GREN assignment:

“What really tickled the judges was not the physics or electronics, but the use of robotics in a junior biology assignment. One of the students (when referring to a robot) asked a judge ‘Is it alive?’ This was the first time in the competition’s history that this award had been awarded outside the US.”

Dave Aston

Key competencies and co-operation

In addition to the four STEM areas, VEX robotics clearly addresses all five New Zealand Curriculum key competencies: thinking; using language, symbols, and text; managing self; relating to others; and participating and contributing.

The game itself is built on a philosophy of co-operation. Unusually, a team’s ranking is based not only on how many sacks (2013 game) or bucky balls (2014 game) are loaded in its own goal, but also how many are loaded in the opposition’s goal. Once a team has loaded all its own sacks, it will assist the opponent to load its sacks, in this way enhancing both teams’ rankings. A team’s ranking goes down if it sweeps the floor and the opposition has no sacks loaded.

This spirit of co-operation can extend beyond the school years:

“Two university students who were involved in VEX at school last year are now helping schools with their VEX robotics.”

Dave Aston

Promoting robotics in other contexts

A group of five from Glenfield College, including two teachers and three students, were invited by the Kiwibots Robotics group and Tianjin Science and Technology Organisation to attend Tianjin Science Week in Tianjin, China. During their visit, they made presentations on robots and competed in a robotics competition. Mrs Zhu Liping, member of the Standing Committee of Tianjin Party Committee, opened the event and, on seeing the energy of the students with their robots, promptly gave permission for robotics in China’s high schools. The New Zealand students were quizzed about how they had achieved such success at the World Championship. Chinese teachers were very interested in the concept of teaching as inquiry.

After seeing how robotics captivates school students, New Zealand universities are introducing VEX programmes into engineering courses. Dave has also heard that participation in VEX robotics can help engineering graduates secure job interviews. He believes that it is the demonstrated ability to follow an intensely iterative design approach that attracts employers.

What next?

Glenfield teams are already building their first iteration of the robots for the next game, Toss Up. For more information, see the team’s website.

Robotics and the technology curriculum

Robotics is an ideal medium for teaching electronics, programming, technological systems, and technological practice.

Through their robotics work, students can meet achievement and learning objectives of Technology in the New Zealand Curriculum and potentially gain Technology achievement standards.

Want to get your school involved?

Chris Hamling is responsible for coordinating and growing VEX robotics in New Zealand. He can be contacted at vexrobotics.co.nz Chris looks after schools and universities, and solicits corporate sponsorship.

Dave Aston is also happy to be contacted to discuss the role that VEX can play in education and how he has gone about developing a competitive VEX team.

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