Part hackathon, part sporting event, and all STEM!
Move over football. Robots are turning STEM into the ultimate school sport. Robotics competitions for students aren’t new, but they are going mainstream and growing by leaps and bounds. With institutions, corporations and even Grammy Award-winning music producers like will.i.am backing these competitions, there’s more opportunity than ever for teachers to get students excited about what will surely be a dominant field in the coming years. If there is any doubt about the popularity of robotics in STEM education, this infographic by KUKA Robotics (@kuka_roboticsus) should silence the naysayers: http://bit.ly/1JGQhWo
Calling All Roboticists
While the word “robot” may conjure images of futuristic metal minions, robots are already important in manufacturing and education, and they’re increasingly being used for medical and household applications. In Japan, robots care for the elderly, wait tables and (starting in July) will manage your hotel stay effortlessly. Prospects in robotics are exciting. Some scientists are looking to nature’s designs to develop sleeker, quicker, more adaptable robots that move like animals do. Soldiers may someday use them as “pack animals.” And it doesn’t get more thrilling than landing rovers on distant planets and comets.
Who’s going to build the new army of bots? Advances in computing are opening up countless new opportunities in robotics, and the industry had its strongest year ever in 2014. While employment of robotics engineers is expected to decline in manufacturing, it’s projected to grow in other scientific fields, according to the International Federation of Robotics. Job growth in engineering as a whole is expected to grow 10.3% by 2020. Students who study robotics can use their electronics, mechanics, and programming skills across a wide range of other fields including biotechnology, materials science, and nanotechnology.
But employers are wondering if there will be enough of these students to fill the engineering positions of the future. Corporations are discouraged by the numbers; a mere 16 percent of American high school seniors are proficient in mathematics and interested in a STEM career, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Electrifying Events and Corporate Sponsorship Spur Student Participation Worldwide
Fortunately, robotics competitions aimed at getting kids excited about tech are springing up all over. The sixth annual National Robotics Week, held April 4-12, 2015, had events in all 50 states, and there are an increasing number of competitions in all areas of robotics. Robotics contests are becoming a popular way to teach kids about tech, and creative educators and organizers have been coming up with fresh concepts that continue to challenge students [with real-world problems – project-based learning in action]. Over the years, contestants have been building robots that traverse obstacle courses, grab and hoard balls, toss rings, and more.
The FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition for high school students is the world’s largest international event. FIRST gives kids broad-based experience by requiring teams to raise funds, build their own brand, and design and engineer a bot that can hold its own in the ring. The projects teach kids mechanics, programming, teamwork, and cooperation. Participants can even qualify for college scholarships.
Most robotics competitions are hands-on, team-based events. Students develop and test new engineering skills that solve real-world problems in teams that emphasize creative, collaborative problem-solving. And like more traditional sports, they learn how to work together to compete graciously in constrained and stressful situations. Recent research has shown that engaging students in project-based learning is critical to their success in 21st century STEM jobs. In robotics competitions, students learn by doing and getting their hands “dirty” – which helps them understand how to solve problems the way real-world scientists do.
Just ask Janet Kolodner (Cognitive Scientist and one of the original architects and author of project-based learning curriculum, PBIS). Authenticity in project-based learning is key to giving students crucial, real world experience. Says Kolodner in a recent interview with Education Insider, “Scientists and engineers work on the things that are interesting to them. They ask their own questions, they answer those questions; they get together with each other and decide what’s interesting to work on. In PBIS, the kids are always asking questions identifying what they need to learn more about and identifying what they need to investigate before they begin.” This is at the heart of the success behind robotics competitions.
While FIRST began with 28 teams in a high-school gym in New England, its Robotics World Championship is now held in the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, Missouri. It’s planning to expand into two additional venues in 2016. FIRST now also holds a FIRST Tech Challenge for grades 7-12, FIRST Lego League for grades 4-8, and even a Junior FIRST Lego League for grades K-3. 15-20% of schools and over 400,000 kids are participating each year.
Thanks to programming, robots are becoming vastly more intelligent than the remote-controlled cars and planes of the past – so much so that they can work independently, without any human help. While many competitions use robots directed by humans, others focus on programmed artificial intelligence. The LEAGUE of Amazing Programmers’ annual International Autonomous Robot Competition, or iARoC, is one of the few robot competitions where the bots must perform tasks without assistance. The machines are guided through mazes by instructions programmed into the kids’ smartphones – which, appropriately, are Androids. The successful program is in its eighth year.
Much of this explosive growth has been spurred by sponsorship from NASA (our partner in STEM education), universities, software companies, and large corporations like Chevron and General Electric. Universities typically donate mentorship, while corporate sponsors donate funding or design software. While the robots don’t exactly sport advertisement logos, corporate sponsors do get the opportunity to develop future talent. By encouraging youngsters to pursue STEM careers, they may gain future employees for hard-to-fill positions. “We measure the success by the number of teams adopting our software to create their robots,” Robin Saitz (@robinsaitz) from PTC, a Boston-based software company, told BizBash. They also receive the goodwill of their clients for participating. Students not only get help with their projects, but can also learn about the kinds of careers available in the field.
But sponsorship would mean little without the kids, and more kids have been signing up for robotics competitions than ever before because, well, they’re fun! The events have become a spectator sport, with all the fanfare of other school games. FIRST even has time clocks, referees, cheerleaders, and thousands of onlookers and fans. Some competitions also have live band music. To see it for yourself, check out the highlights video from the 2015 FIRST Championship at the bottom of this page.
In some cases, official state support is helping to make the bot bashes possible. FIRST dubs itself the “varsity Sport for the Mind,” and so far, two states have agreed. “In 2012, Minnesota became the first state to recognize robotics competitions as a sport. Arizona became the second in December, and Connecticut and Texas are headed in that direction,” FIRST President Don Bossi told EdTech Magazine. Official recognition means the events can benefit from the same resources other school games do, such as buses, coaches, and pep rallies. Equal school support shows participants that what they do is important, and the perks can lead to prestige and recognition from peers.
The growing popularity of the contests isn’t limited to the U.S.; participation has been growing worldwide. There are now several international contests, including RoboCupJunior International, the International Autonomous Underwater Vehicle Competition, and the International Robot Olympiad. Botball, another autonomous robot competition, had an impressive total of 341 teams from the U.S., China, Europe, Qatar, and Southeastern Africa this year. The first international Eurobot contest was held back in 1998. Originally a French competition, teams from all over the world now battle for its top prize. From the Egyptian Championship to Kiwibots New Zealand, the popular VEX Robotics Competition and others like it are quickly spreading around the globe. The African Robotics Network, begun in 2012, now has 380 members from 51 countries.
Wondering how you can get your students involved? Here are some sample robotics competitions from NASA your students can do in class or at home!
- Line Running Challenge: A good, old-fashioned robot race.
- LEGO-based Sumo Challenge: LEGO-bot bulldozers jockey for position and try to push each other out of a ring.
Looking for mentorship for your students? See NASA’s list of universities that offer robotics programs to find a college near you. Or, encourage college-bound kids interested in robotics to check it out.
You can learn more about robotics competitions by reading last year’s robotics Twitter chat curated by Project GUTS (Growing Up Thinking Scientifically). Also on Twitter, follow the #CSK8 hashtag to get in on future chats and stay up-to-date with regular tweets on robotics education for K-8 students.
Popular Robotics Competitions for Students
Check out some of the most popular competitions for kids below. You can find more robotics competitions at NASA’s website.
- FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology):
- FIRST Robotics Challenge (FRC): This is an international event for high school students, and FIRST’s flagship program.
- FIRST Tech Challenge: A lower-cost alternative to the FRC for younger students in grades 7-12.
- FIRST Lego League: The most popular challenge, in which students in grades 4-8 create programmable robots built from LEGO blocks.
- B.E.S.T. Robotics: Boosting Engineering, Science, and Technology is a national robotics contest in the U.S. It’s one of the few free competitions; no fees are charged to schools. B.E.S.T. is similar to the FIRST Robotics Challenge.
- Botball: Botball is an autonomous robotics competition for middle and high school aged students. It’s easy to get started with a game kit – no power tools required.
- National Underwater Robotics Challenge (NURC): NURC challenges kids to build bots that hold up underwater. The organization also hosts NURC Light for younger kids, and NURC Auto for unmanned bots.
- Early Robotics Competition: A robotics program for 7-to-12 year-old students held each fall and spring.
- RoboRave International: Begun as a local contest in 2001 by 25 high school students and three teachers in New Mexico, RoboRave is now an international competition with offshoots in the Czech Republic, Columbia, China, and Mexico.
- Federation of International Robot-soccer Association (FIRA): Organizes an annual FIRA Robot World Cup and Congress that includes the Micro-Robot Soccer Tournament (MiroSot), the Simulated Robot Soccer Tournament (SimuroSot), and the Humanoid Robot Soccer Tournament (HuroSot).
- World Robot Olympiad (WRO): WRO includes three categories. Its Regular Category is its original competition. Students must create robots that can complete a given challenge. In the Open Challenge, participants design solutions-based robots that match the contest’s theme. WRO GEN II Football is a soccer-bot challenge.
- DARPA Robotic Challenge: A “first responder” robot challenge. This is a deliberately difficult competition that challenges teams to make robots that can respond to disaster situations.
- VEX Robotics Competition: VEX is the fastest-growing robotics program for middle and high school students.
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