Teachers are introducing STEM into their classrooms through various activities. Often this activity is based on robotics. Students are formed into design groups and tasked to design and build a technology.
One critical but overlooked question is why build the machine. Engineering is a practical, applied science. Projects are undertaken to solve a pressing problem. This aspect may not be addressed at the start of a classroom project. The "why" for building any gizmo may or may not be stated at the start. Often the classroom goal is a competition to see which robot performs the best. Or building for the experience of building. When the project is completed and the winners announced, the excitement fades. However, frame the classroom experience as problem solving (finding a need and fill it) and teach a valuable life skill.
Before the materials are distributed, the teacher should discuss what needs could a robot could fulfill. Look at the Rumba, the disk that can vacuum a room by itself. Perhaps the students could assemble a machine that could help a disabled person pick up a pencil. They may solve a problem where a diner / restaurant needs to get a glass of milk to the other end of the lunch counter, collect the money and return to the cashier. Maybe a vehicle must cross a rough patch of road while making a delivery. The discussion should include what difficulties the device may encounter. In the diner case, the widget will have to maneuver around plates or avoid people's hands. On that rough road, the machine must remain upright.
Activity time and resources are restricted. Have the class pick the design problem and one design difficulty to be overcome. Then divide the class into workgroups. Each group should decide its best solution before starting to assemble their robot. At the end of the build, have each group test out their design. Make this the fun part. Reward creativity. After the design and testing, the most important part of this entire lesson is the final project evaluation. What worked well? What did not work as expected? What would each group do differently?
Throughout the activity, the teacher is the advisor, coach and cheerleader. Most important, the teacher encourages each student to wonder. This is where engineers and scientists are born. Wonder is the feeling that grows into the thoughts, "This engineering thing might be a field for future study" or "It may be hard, but doing engineering is fun and worthwhile." Maintain this sense of wonder is how future engineers are nurtured.
About the author: Peg Gotthold has over 30 years experience in project management and for-profit and not-for-profit profit start ups. She holds an engineering degree from Drexel University and holds certificates in grant writing and dispute resolution.
Her passion is STEM advocacy - helping teachers, parents and students realize the satisfaction of a science, technology, engineering or math career.
(Image from wonderfulengineering.com)
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