Back to School: STEM’s Impact on Developing Future Roboticists
August 28, 2019      

For more than 20 years, educators have encouraged the teaching of a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) curriculum to address the next generation of workers, which includes developing the world’s next roboticists and artificial engineering experts.

As students in North America begin to return to school, educators continue to stress bringing robots and robot education into classrooms. Unfortunately for many students, robotics programs and curricula vary across school districts, often heavily dependent on gender, socio-economic conditions, and even racial demographics.

For example, last year, STEMconnector released its “State of STEM” report, outlining five critical gaps in the STEM workforce, including:

  1. Fundamental Skills Gap: Not enough young people are developing the foundation and skills for success as lifelong workers and active citizens.
  2. Belief Gap: Young people, and the adults around them, hold incorrect beliefs about the aptitude or traits young people must have to belong and thrive in STEM fields.
  3. Postsecondary Education Gap: Not enough young people are earning credentials beyond a high school diploma, which are required for the new knowledge economy.
  4. Geographic Gap: Hubs of economic growth, particularly for businesses that require STEM skills, are often far from large concentrations of qualified job seekers, or too far from population centers.
  5. Demographic Gap: There is disproportionate participation in STEM jobs based on race, gender, and income, despite decades of focus on diversity and inclusion.
Steve Coxon Maryville University STEM education q&a

Steve Coxon, Maryville University

To get an overview of the state of STEM education in 2019, Robotics Business Review spoke with Steve Coxon, Ph.D., an associate professor of the Online Education program at Maryville University in St. Louis. He is also the executive director for Access and Achievement at the university. Dr. Coxon’s expertise includes educational development in STEM, alongside the development of robotics curricula and programming for young and gifted students.

Benefits of STEM education

Q: Robotics competitions and STEM-based initiatives have been around for more than 25 years now (the FIRST robotics competition was first held in 1992). What good things have you seen as a result of these competitions or initiatives?

Coxon: STEM-based initiatives, such as the FIRST Robotics set of programs, have helped to bring a lot of visibility to the need for STEM, as well as increased young people’s excitement for the topics. Twenty-five years ago, I think most young people saw these as difficult and uninteresting fields. Now, I think it’s just the opposite. Students are usually really excited when they get a chance to participate in STEM programs. From FIRST, in particular, we have a wealth of research on what participants do for their secondary education: They go into STEM in much greater numbers.

Q: Similarly, what challenges do we still face in educating our children in STEM-based concepts?

Coxon: There are many remaining challenges. One of the biggest is unequal opportunity to participate based on race, sex, and socio-economic class. In St. Louis, most of our low-income schools are predominately African-American. While many low-income schools are doing work in STEM, it is an uphill battle. America is the only developed nation that funds schools differently based on local wealth. This has many implications, and one of the worst is that low-income schools have to rely on external funding, and struggle to maintain initiatives from year to year. They often want to, but they are unable to make robotics available to all students.

Still, even families that can afford STEM programs don’t choose them for their girls as often as they do for their boys. In tuition-based STEM programs in the summer, we see that only about one-third of participants are girls. In interviews with parents, they often say that they don’t feel their girls would enjoy STEM, but signed their boys up for “fun.” In contrast, when students are themselves choosing in our free, grant-funded STEM programs, girls choose to participate in those just as often as boys. Parental stereotyping is a big challenge to overcome.

Q: A lot of your work is around spatial ability – how is this different from other types of intelligence or giftedness? How does learning about robotics play a role in developing spatial ability for students?

Coxon: Schools do math and language arts every day, but we know that spatial ability is just as important and could be developed further if schools taught it every day. Spatial is the ability to think in complex mental images, and it’s vital for nearly everyone in STEM, including engineers and computer scientists. One must be able to visualize what has not yet been engineered, or how a robot will respond to a program, for example. In my research, we discovered that engineering LEGO robots increases students’ pre- to post-assessment scores on measurements of spatial ability. Spatial ability becomes a gatekeeper into some fields, especially engineering and the physical sciences. If we made this a school subject, or at least ensured we incorporated it into other subjects every day, more students would be ready to go into STEM fields.

school class math STEM article

In addition to teaching math and language, spatial ability skills are needed for computer science and robotics education.

Q: Are schools doing enough to develop STEM- or robotics-based curricula in their schools, or are they just relegating these to after-school groups or “hobby” type clubs? What has your experience been when dealing with different school districts?

Coxon: Almost every school relegates robotics to either after-school programs or at best, electives. If they are doing robotics at all. I know of one small district that does have robotics for all students throughout the school year, but this is the exception and not the norm.

A lot of my work has focused on integration to help teachers fit robotics into regular school subjects. For example, we created three math units for upper elementary students that meet Common Core State Standards in math while utilizing LEGO WeDo 2.0 robotics: CREST-M, which stands for Children using Robotics for Engineering, Science, Technology, and Math. We found a great improvement in students’ math scores using the CREST-M curriculum, likely due to the high engagement they experienced with the robotics. We’re now working on a similar program for middle school students.

Q: Many feel that in order to train the workforce of the future, we need to have more workers understand a lot of these STEM-based concepts. Are schools developing these programs at the right age? It seems like most of these programs are started at the middle-school, high school or even college level, and not at the elementary or pre-K stage. Is there a right time to begin with robotics concepts or STEM training?

Coxon: No age is too late, but I believe that it is best to engage students early in age-appropriate ways. Human coding — where a student is the robot and her peers give her commands — is great for pre-school. There are also great pre-school robotics platforms such as KIBO, where students arrange wooden blocks each with a command in written and pictorial form that is scanned by the robot. Students learn numbers and sequencing while simultaneously learning basic coding skills such as repeat loops, and hopefully a lifelong love of robotics.

Q: Can we take these concepts and use them to re-train our adult workforce? There’s lots of discussion on how robots will “take jobs” from humans, but less discussion on the retraining aspects. Can similar educational efforts be made in the retraining area? Can we “teach old dogs new tricks?”

Coxon: We can! Launch Code and other programs for adults demonstrate this. If people are feeling left behind in the work world, they can learn to program in Python and other high-demand languages for free online or through numerous programs.

Right now, I’m re-learning Javascript — a language I’ve hardly touched in 20 years — with my 7-year-old as we work to create simple apps. I’m not planning to switch careers (I don’t think anything beats STEM talent development with youth), but it does suggest that old dogs can learn new tricks!