Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Motivating Students with Robotics: Students Increase Science Skills and Confidence through a Robotics Course and International Competition

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Motivating Students with Robotics: Students Increase Science Skills and Confidence through a Robotics Course and International Competition

Article excerpt


In recent years, the need to advance the number of individuals pursuing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields has gained much attention. The Montgomery County/ Virginia Tech Robotics Collaborative (MCVTRC), a yearlong high school robotics program housed in an educational shop facility in Montgomery County, Virginia, seeks to motivate students' interest in these fields. Through this program, students have the unique opportunity to apply their science and math skills to robotics design through a series of short courses and to participate in an international robotics competition, For Inspiration and Recognition of Science Technology (FIRST) (see "About FIRST").

The high school robotics program capitalizes on the student excitement generated by participation in FIRST while providing an avenue for students to increase science-related skills (e.g., critical thinking) and self confidence.

The MCVTRC program is a collaboration between students and faculty from Montgomery County Public Schools' four high schools, undergraduate and graduate students from engineering and related fields at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech), and faculty from the university's School of Education and Department of Mechanical Engineering. While this article describes a countywide robotics program and its impact on student understanding, it also can serve as a model for other schools and districts that wish to implement similar programs.

Student engagement

According to Bandura (1986, 1994), students' perceptions of their abilities play a major role in determining their accomplishments and defining what they consider to be an attainable goal. Bandura discusses the nature of the learning environment in terms of encouragement and motivation, peer interactions, repeated successes, and supportive risk taking as factors having the potential to positively impact students' self confidence, as well as their behaviors and attitudes toward learning (Bandura 1997). In the MCVTRC program, all students are encouraged to participate in the activities and are supported in their application of science, mathematics, and technology concepts to solve problems.

Similarly, the National Science Education Standards (NRC 1996) call for students to be actively engaged in solving problems that allow them to realize applications beyond the scope of the classroom. Ideally, students should be engaged in designing, constructing, analyzing, and proposing solutions to problems (AAAS 1993; NRC 1996). To accomplish these objectives, and also to open the world of science to those from nonmainstream backgrounds, nontraditional approaches can be particularly effective (Brown 2002).

Along these lines, the robotics program engages students in science through a nontraditional approach, as students explore the field of robotics as a real-world discipline in which the fundamentals learned are put to practical use. Over the course of the year, students construct various robot prototypes in addition to the human-sized robot specifically designed for the FIRST competition. Having the opportunity to work with peers and mentors from the university and to participate in FIRST motivates students, which can increase their interest in pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

The program

Now in its ninth year, MCVTRC is a one-credit "local elective" offered to 10th- through 12th-grade students that can be taken up to three times during their course of study. Through this program, high school students, undergraduate mentors, graduate students, and high school and university faculty meet twice a week in a centrally located shop facility consisting of a computer lab, workshop, and classroom. The high school course is cotaught by high school faculty and a graduate student from Virginia Tech--who is advised by faculty from the School of Education and the Department of Mechanical Engineering. …

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