Flower

Students Discover STEM at New England Botfest and Botball

Botfest

We all know by now that STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) is important for students, who need to build 21st-century skills to compete in today’s workforce. But STEM feels a bit like a prescription to eat more vegetables instead of birthday cake. Yes, STEM is nutritious, but the arts and humanities are so much more alluring, succulent, and enriching. At least that’s what I thought until a group of middle and high school students—and their robots—proved me wrong.

Botfest and Botball

At the 2016 New England Botfest Exhibition and Botball Tournament at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, students showed off their robotic creations. Lego pieces transformed into a walking pig, a butler, and a police station. LED lights adorned clothes and accessories. Several robots zoomed around to greet curious guests. And autonomous robots competed at Botball.

This annual event is the culmination of a STEM outreach partnership between the UMASS-Lowell Computer Science department and K-12 schools throughout Massachusetts and New England. According to the UMASS website, “Botball and Botfest provide fun, challenging, team-based, hands-on learning experiences for middle and high school students in computer science, robotics and technology. These efforts instill curiosity, knowledge and confidence to prepare students for college, career choices and the high tech workplace.” With the help of donations, this program provides teacher training and robotic classroom supplies.

Lessons Learned

While students explained how they built their creations (common materials: Lego pieces, motion sensors, motors, and computer software), I learned that my preconceptions about STEM were wildly inaccurate. STEM education encompasses so much more than science, technology, engineering, and math; it also includes teamwork, creativity, problem-solving, and—most shockingly—art.

Students from Brookside Elementary in Dracut, Massachusetts, worked together to design a walking pig, which they built with Lego pieces. They solved challenges such as programing their pig and using the appropriate motor to control its speed. Their labor resulted in a work of art. In fact, all of the creations I saw were indeed works of art.

STEM education, I realized, is not just about a bunch of abstract concepts. It is about creating things that have value in the real world, whether artistically, functionally, or both. Robots like NASA’s Valkyries, one of which recently arrived at UMASS-Lowell, are the future after all. Most importantly, though, when I asked the students if they had fun, each answered with an enthusiastic “yes!” So I guess STEM isn’t so bad.

How has your school integrated STEM into the curriculum?

Share your thoughts with us on Twitter @ProQuest or in the comments below.

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