"Students used to ask, 'Why don't you just give us something to analyze?' What we really want to hear is, 'Show us someone who needs help.' [In order for that to occur] culture shift is required."
Dr. Woodie C. Flowers
MIT Pappalardo Professor of Mechanical Engineering (2005)
Real-world problem solving, addressing societal needs, and improving the quality of life are all synonymous with technology education and its standards. In Pennsylvania, standard 3.8.12 encourages students to, "Apply the use of ingenuity and technological resources to solve specific societal needs and improve the quality of life" (Pennsylvania Department of Education, 2002). At the national level, Standards for Technological Literacy: Content for the Study of Technology (STL) Standards 4, 5, 6, and 13 all relate to the effects and impacts that development and use of technology have on the environment and society in general (ITEA, 2000/2002/2007). However, the problem for the classroom teacher lies within the creation of those engaging, current, and relevant STEM-related problem-solving activities that will have the most impact on students. In our program, we have recently developed an activity that addresses the above stated standards but also has strong interdisciplinary connections. The following classroom challenge was created to incorporate a humanitarian project with the use of the Vex Robotics Design System to remove simulated IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) to a detonation zone within a specified amount of time. The relevance of this activity to students is obvious given the deluge of war coverage in the news media. Some of this media coverage may actually be used as an anticipatory set and as part of the research phase of the design process. Wired Magazine's article titled, "The Baghdad Bomb Squad" (Shachtman, 2005) documents a true humanitarian need for smart machines that can save the lives of soldiers and civilians in a combat zone.
Throughout this activity, named "IED Cleanup," students work in pairs to design and build robots to perform appropriate tasks. However, the entire class works together to develop a strategy, a set of complimentary designs, and a collective plan for implementation to safely dispose of the IEDs. There within lies one of the unique aspects of this activity. Rather than competing against one another, teams of students are cooperating together to solve a problem. They quickly learn that the success of the team/class is dependent upon efforts and communication skills of each individual, which are real-world life skills that apply to college, work, and life within our global society. Most importantly, students are learning the overarching goal of STEM and technology education, which is to use one's skills and knowledge to improve the world in which we live.
Robots in the classroom are not a new idea, and it's true that projects involving the creation of these multisystem creatures can consume entire semesters in a heartbeat. However, our experiences have revealed to us that robotics projects and challenges in the classroom just might be one of the best ways to deliver meaningful STEM instruction and address standards while purposefully helping to develop a more socially conscious student. We're not building toys; we're designing and building complex systems that serve an intended purpose, a humanitarian purpose! And best of all, a diverse range of students is "getting it." They see the interdisciplinary connections of math, science, engineering, and the value of effective communication and strategy. They see the need and "role of society in the development and use of the technology," and the "effects of technology on the environment" as stated in STL 6 and STL 5, respectively. In addition, students quickly come to realize that personal biases and differences are of no use in solving the problem at hand; they must work together. In order to invite the culture shift that Dr. …