Robotics Competitions Fuel STEM Surge in Alabama Schools

Robotics competitions are becoming part of Alabama’s attempts to help science, technology, engineering and math — or STEM — become a staple in student lives. There are more than 860 registered teams in the state.

by Ben Nunnally, The Anniston Star / January 21, 2020
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(TNS) — If at first you don’t succeed, rebuild, reprogram and retry.

That’s what students from third to 12th grade are learning in robotics competitions across Alabama, according to Leslie Cruse, regional support manager for the Robotics Education & Competition Foundation, an education nonprofit which helps organize and promote the events worldwide.

“It’s an iterative design process, so since competitions are pretty much every Saturday, the teams compete and figure out what doesn’t work,” Cruse said, “then go back to the classroom, go back through the entire design process and go to another competition.”

About two dozen teams competed at Oxford High School on Friday morning, including middle and high school teams from White Plains, Ohatchee, Southside, Pell City and Oxford; the competition was a follow-up to another event in Anniston last month. This time students were qualifying for a state competition in Auburn next month; Oxford ended up taking honors in the categories of excellence and design, while Ohatchee’s “Tribe Tech” team took the tournament crown.

Robotics competitions are becoming a typical part of Alabama’s attempts to help science, technology, engineering and math — or STEM — become a staple in student lives. There are more than 860 teams in the state registered just to VEX Robotics, a subsidiary of Texas-based robotics company Innovation First International. The BEST Robotics competition, which has about 850 teams nationwide, according to its website, holds six-week programs events in the South in the fall.

Cruse said the competitions encourage interest in engineering, among other things.

“They teach organization, being on time, how to operate under pressure, even how to handle losing,” she said.

The importance of getting kids into STEM has been recognized by big-name tech companies like Tesla, which spent money in Nevada last year to encourage STEM teaching, and the U.S. government, which released an exhaustive look at STEM learning in the country in December 2018.

“Americans’ basic STEM skills have modestly improved over the past two decades but continue to lag behind many other countries,” the report states.

Cruse said she worked with the Tesla team in Nevada, developing a plan to put robotics in every school in the area. She said the investment was partly motivated by a need for a bigger, more qualified workforce.

“Tesla has jobs they’re not able to fill,” she said.

A Pew Research Center report from 2017 shows the U.S. performing well, but modestly, compared to other countries in math, science and reading.

Alabama has since the early 2000s had a program called AMSTI — the Alabama Math, Science, and Technology Initiative — pushing for more STEM teaching. The initiative provides professional development for teachers and offers teaching materials, like science kits that give kids hands-on lessons about animals and biology, electricity and conduits, and complex problems to solve, like how to clean up an oil spill.

The initiative’s local office is at Jacksonville State University, and works with about 85 schools in seven northeastern Alabama counties, according to director Kay Johnson.

Young kids learn that they can work in science fields, and in turn broaden their horizons, she said. Teachers also benefit from the program, as they’re given training over the summer to help them teach from the kits.

“We prepare teachers ... to go and be confident in their skills in teaching students,” Johnson said.

She said that hands-on activities help make kids excited to learn.

“It creates high interest and engagement; they cannot wait for science instruction daily,” Johnson said. “I did that for years before I became director here, so I’m speaking directly from experience with my third-grade students.”

©2020 The Anniston Star (Anniston, Ala.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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