Robotics: the future of STEM education

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 23 Feb 2017   Posted by admin

All images: QUT.

By Emma Davies

WITH the increasing focus on Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) in schools across Australia, more and more educational institutions are implementing robotics programs for their students.

In 2015, the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) reported that an estimated 40 per cent of Australia’s workforce could be replaced by automation within the next 20 years. That’s approximately five million jobs that could be replaced by robots.

Queensland University of Technology’s Dr Christina Chalmers says that with the speed of technological development, we need to better position children to face this future.

“Robotics is a great for teaching STEM subjects and STEM skills have been identified as essential for developing creative thinkers and problem solvers; skills that are needed for future jobs and for solving big world problems,” she said.

The Federal Government is spending $3.5m on the ‘Coding across the Curriculum’ initiative in a bid to incorporate coding into existing subjects. Even Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has declared that coding is as fundamental as reading and writing.

The Government also introduced the National Innovation and Science Agenda to inspire all Australians in digital literacy, to embrace innovation and science from an early age and harness new sources of growth to deliver the next age of economic prosperity in Australia.

The agenda aims to up-skill both students and teachers through free online courses, support, equipment, partnerships with industry, mentoring, digital literacy grants and funding so that teachers and students can understand how STEM is applied in the real world.

Robotics and coding is an interactive and engaging way of introducing STEM in to the curriculum and inspiring young people to pursue STEM-related subjects and careers. Dr Chalmers said the National Digital Technologies Curriculum is a positive step towards helping children to develop technological skills.

“It puts digital technology and coding within the school curriculum and means that all students have the opportunity to learn new skills in order to take advantage of future employment opportunities,” she said.

Many private schools have already implemented robotics into their curriculum. There has been an increase in school teams participating in robotics competitions, such as FIRST LEGO League and the FIRST Robotics Competition (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology).

The Queensland State Government has made coding and robotics compulsory in schools with its Advancing Education Action Plan aiming to fast-track the National Digital Technologies Curriculum by improving teacher preparation in STEM subjects through professional development, mentoring, and access to technology.

Every state school will have access to specialist science, technology, engineering and maths teachers. The #codingcounts initiative is supplementary to the action plan and aims to develop students’ digital literacy and to support the teaching of digital technologies, coding and robotics through the provision of high quality and innovative curriculum resources.

The  #codingcounts plan states that coding and robotics are important for every student to prepare them for the jobs of the future, where technology will be part of every workplace.

The stress is not only on coding but learning the language of coding, which engages students in developing their skills in critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and innovation. The Queensland State Government is committed to promoting coding as the new literacy and a must have skill for every student.

Swinburne University Department of Education deputy chair Dr Therese Keane believes there should be innovative programs like robotics in schools to entice kids to participate in STEM activities.

“Rather than just having standard science, maths and IT classes, things that interest students in a more collaborative way, that are innovative and use those skill sets are a really good way of enticing kids to apply what they’re learning in to a real life context,” she said.

Dr Chalmers agrees, stating there is a need to address STEM in education in Australia as student enrolments in these subjects at secondary and tertiary levels of education are declining.

“The decline impacts on students’ engagement in higher STEM studies and on their future employment options. Robotics has proved to be an engaging tool for motivating students to participate in STEM activities and students participating in robotics activities have been shown to be more likely to pursue STEM based university pathways,” she said.

While Dr Keane has noted many positives in bring robots into the classroom, she has some reservations with following the lead of Queensland and making robotics programs compulsory across Australia.

“My natural inclination is to say yes, but I am well aware that if you make anything compulsory and there’s not enough professional development for the teachers, there’s not enough resources and depending on which robotics program, it could be very expensive,” she said.

“Not every school has the resources, or even the labour, so before you go down the path of making something like that compulsory, there needs to be the professional development for teachers and the resources available.”

Although there are challenges to nation-wide implementation, Dr Chalmers is positive that coding and robotics are central to the future and that the new National Digital Technologies curriculum will see the rest of the country adopting robotics and coding into their schools.

“Learning to code is about learning to solve problems, breaking the problem down, to recognise patterns, and to think in a logical manner,” she said.

“There is a shortage of STEM teachers in general and while coding and robotics are seen as essential for students to learn from an early age we need teachers with the expertise and experience to teach with robots.

“Having access to specialist STEM teachers would assist classroom teachers implement engaging coding and robotics activities in their classrooms.”

Robotics competitions such as FIRST LEGO League and the Annual FIRST Competition have a role to play in educating children in a fun and engaging way with more and more teams participating in the popular events.

Dr Keane, a tournament director for the FIRST LEGO League in Victoria and mentor for an all girls team in the FIRST Robotics Competition, thinks these competitions are an excellent way to get more young girls involved in STEM activities.

“We’ve opened the invitation for all secondary school girls so it doesn’t matter if you’re from a catholic school, an independent school or a government school,” she said.

“It’s there for anybody and we’ve also taken the socio economic factor out of it through fundraising.

“It’s very expensive and that’s why all schools can’t do it.”

The Queensland University of Technology runs a robotics outreach project and Dr Chalmers has seen a rise in the number of girls participating.

“These types of events have an important role in building students’ STEM skills. Students have fun and work together to problem solve in teams as they make predictions and test and adjust their robots,” she said.

“However, the problem is we need to reach more schools with these engaging activities and not all schools can afford to enter these competitions. We need to make sure that every child has the opportunity to work with robots and coding in school and to give them further opportunity to pursue their interest in these areas.”

Teacher training is definitely a challenging factor for robotics programs. According to the Advancing Education Report, face-to-face workshops, webinars, mentoring by STEM champions, industry role models and entrepreneurs are necessary for up-skilling teachers.

Access to digital platforms is essential, particularly in remote locations.

There also needs to be adequate investment in hardware, software, network capacity and speed, bandwidth, broadband, and technical support. In general there is a lack of qualified staff, training staff and STEM teachers to implement these programs.

Dr Chalmers says the main challenges are access to resources and building the skill set of teachers.

“Robotics and the Digital Technologies curriculum take teachers away from being the ‘expert’ in the classroom to being a facilitator as students are leaning different ways to solve problems,” she said.

“Teachers need to put in the time to look at the technology,” Dr Keane said.

“They need to see what they can do, what the mistakes they make so that in a classroom and when a student has an issue they can say oh I’ve seen that problem.”

STEM education is now embedded in pre-service teacher training at university, which means new teachers are starting with a range of skills in this area.

It is the teachers currently in schools who need support to engage in robotics and coding activities. The Queensland University of Technology (QUT) runs workshops to up-skill teachers in these STEM areas of curriculum.

Another challenging factor is cost. QUT also runs a robotics outreach program from low income area schools and Dr Chalmers says not many schools would be able to afford the technology alongside their usual literacy and numeracy programs.

“We’re providing robotic loan kits and free professional development workshops but not every school has access to it. Private schools have the funding and the resources to do a lot of this stuff but we’ve got a lot of state schools that are really struggling and they don’t have funds or the extra time to do these really interesting, fun and engaging things,” she said.

While there are some challenges, Dr Keane thinks STEM study is becoming mainstream and that robotics and coding in schools has really raised the profile of STEM education.

“It’s not nerdy, it’s not something you do underground,” she said. “We’re getting prominence with STEM, prominence with robotics, programming, we’ve got the new digital technologies curriculum and I think it’s a good innovative space to be in.”

Children in school today are going to be the future consumers of robotics technology, and the builders and programmers of automated jobs; it makes sense to get them involved in robotics and coding at a young age.

“By developing their understanding of coding and robotics throughout a child’s school years we can not only help them develop their understanding of robotics and coding but also help them develop important skills for their future,” said Dr Chalmers.