Getting Trained to Teach Robotics

This professional development opportunity helps you with the basics and even includes freely available curriculum.

Currently, Penn-Trafford High School offers four robotics courses. The introductory courses draw about 20 students each and are taught twice a semester; the more advanced ones attract 14 to 17 students. Both sets of classes are seeing a steady rise each year in the number of girls participating.

The 1,300-student Pennsylvania high school uses robotics "as a hook, because it's fun, it's interesting, kids like it," said technology education teacher Jeff Newsom. "Yet all the underlying things that we're teaching them can be applied to so many other things — from cell phones to printers. It gives students the ability to not just create a program on a screen that plays a game, but to create a program that does something physical."

When the high school decided to add robotics to its curriculum nine years ago, Newsom knew he'd need professional development to get the program off the ground. Without the help of teacher training and access to free curriculum produced by the Robotics Academy at Carnegie Mellon University, he said, "I wouldn't be where I am now."

Creation of a (Robotic) Movement

The Robotics Academy has been around since the early 2000s, as part of an educational outreach program begun by the National Robotics Engineering Center, where it's still housed. Then-director Robin Shoop wanted to support FIRST LEGO teams. Shoop ran his own FIRST team as an after-school addition to a tech ed program he taught in nearby Schenley High School.

"And that's where it all started," said Ross Higashi, the Academy's head of educational outreach. The Center began developing resources to help the teams "do better and raise the level of competition." That morphed into summer robotics camps for students, which were, the fledgling Academy realized, full "every single time." The logical next step for increasing its impact: "instead of having camps for kids, having camps for teachers."

Now the Academy delivers training, develops curriculum, organizes conferences, runs robotics competitions and produces research on the impact of robotics training in computer science and STEM education. It has also gotten into the business of certification and will soon be doing micro-credentialing for students and teachers. According to statistics kept by the academy, it has trained and certified more than 3,000 teachers, reached a million students every day with its resources and has had its curriculum picked up by 16,000 schools.

The Robot Drives the Training

Robotics competitions come in a few primary flavors, each of them with their own followings in education. FIRST, with almost 30,000 teams, is built around LEGO robots and uses real-world problems on the field of play. Kids participate at different levels depending on their ages. It's a "spectacular program," said Higashi, but can also be "expensive relative to others." For example, the robots for the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC), intended for use by high school teams, he noted, have a more "industrial size" to them (they can weigh up to 120 pounds) and a "five-digit price tag. "

Then there's VEX, whose contests draw 11,000 student teams from middle school through college and use robots that are smaller (up to 20-plus pounds) and less expensive. On the other hand, he noted, the LEGO robot tends to be "simpler, more accessible," while it takes a "lot of technical knowledge" to make VEX robots work,

While there are plenty of teachers who aren't interested in the competitions, it's an important distinction to understand because they'll have to choose which direction they're going in order to buy the gear they'll need and get the right professional development for the platform they've chosen.

While "technology is technology" and the same concepts underlie any robotics course said Higashi, there are "enough idiosyncrasies in each platform that you'll want to finetune it." It's "logistically and conceptually impractical" in class, he pointed out, to have pairs of people working side by side on different robots.

Teacher training at the academy, for example, currently covers one of four options:

  • VEX EDR V5
  • VEX EDR Cortex
  • VEX IQ
  • LEGO Mindstorms EV3

During the summer, these are available for $1,099 in a face-to-face format in Pittsburgh. The courses run four and a half days. An online format for each is also available for $599; during the summer, those follow the same week-long schedule. Or, during other parts of the year, participants get online for two-hour sessions weekly over the course of a month and do the rest of the training on their own and through online forums. In districts where multiple people need PD, the Academy will send an instructor on site for $2,000 per day plus expenses for working with up to 12 teachers.

Modeling Robotics Classes

It isn't only teachers who take the Academy classes. Many of the people who attend do so as "mentors," individuals who are interested in working with students outside of school to help teams participate in those robotic competitions. Some of these are tech professionals; others aren't. While some teachers, such as Newsom, come from school tech programs, others arrive knowing very little.

The mix isn't a problem. Everybody is paired off in class — just like the students will be when those teachers return to their classrooms — and they move from "square one," said Higashi, "to a pretty decent level of thinking through conditional statements programming logic and the process of getting there."

The classes are all workshop-style with a bit of lecture, a bit of "student hat-teacher hat," but the bulk of time is spent learning about the robots in the same way students will. Teachers are taken through the same curriculum that will be used by the students, "so they understand where the stumbling blocks are, places where there's going to be a gotcha, or what it's like to use the curriculum," said Higashi.

Lessons consist of lecture, videos and self-paced activities. They're not designed to fit into a 50-minute format, said Higashi, because "once you get past relatively trivial concepts, they don't fit predictively enough."

After all, he explained, people progress at very different rates in different parts of the curriculum. The teachers sprint through the pedagogy aspects while the software engineers zoom through the coding. "As a consequence, across our 12 stations for our 24 teachers, they go at very different paces. No two workstations are going to be at the exact same place, and that's also part of the modeling that we do as teachers, so they understand it's also how their students are going to work — not at the same pace." People who are faster, he added, can tackle a series of optional tasks — just like in the classroom — while others focus on the core topics.

What the teachers don't face when they show up for their professional development is a "pile of components." In fact, Higashi said, one of the first topics covered in the training is whether students should be given prebuilt robots or build the robots themselves.

"There's not actually a right answer," he added. "This is one of those first places where teachers really need to think through their own classroom scenarios. If you're a teacher who has a tech-focused class and you have the whole semester to work with, then maybe the students should build the robots to have ownership of the process and understand the inner mechanisms better. If you're a teacher who has one week and your goal is to get to some programming logic concepts, then no, just hand them robots prebuilt."

Free Robotics Curriculum and Course Management

The curriculum, on the other hand, is a simpler matter. It's free and openly available on the academy's website. The organization also includes a teacher platform that acts like a modified learning management system.

CS-STEM Network, as it's called, lets teachers create accounts for students; it also acts as a gradebook for tracking progress through courses; it delivers certification to the students as they complete modules; and it serves as a portfolio of the student's work. A new photo-upload feature lets the student provide evidence of physical learning, such as how well connectors were crafted for that soldering activity, the results of which land in that portfolio. A basic account, which allows a teacher to maintain three groups of up to 30 students per group, is free. "Premium access" is $300 annually and allows for unlimited numbers of groups. The reason for the paid tier: "Somebody has to keep the lights on for that thing," said Higashi.

The Academy issues two different kinds of certification — one for anybody who completes the course, and the other for teachers who take a certification exam afterwards. That's important for any teacher who intends for his or her students to get certified. Only certified teachers can issue credentials to students, which currently consists only of a credential for students who finish an introduction to programming.

The Academy is also working with the Advanced Robotics Manufacturing Institute to develop a set of micro-credentials in robotic technician work and the accompanying curriculum. These will cover units on electronics, mechanics, fabrication and related topics. The results are intended to serve as a "pre-apprenticeship level of knowledge and skills," said Higashi. Possibly, he noted, those will eventually be transferable for credits to a community college or help a student gain an apprenticeship at a local company.

What the Robotics Academy Can't Teach

At the heart of all of this PD and curriculum is a worthy goal: bringing more science and tech, engineering and math to schools in a format that appeals to a wide swath of students, not just the ones who are naturally drawn to STEM topics. And that requires effort from both sides — the Academy and the teachers.

"Our PD mostly covers as a default the programming and pedagogy that are relevant to understanding robotics," said Higashi. At the same time, however, he recognizes that while "we're certainly experts in robotics education, [teachers] are the experts in their kids and their neighborhoods. I wouldn't presume to be the one to tell them how to make that adaptation. It's up to the teacher to frame it in a way that's appealing to all the students they have."

Advice from the Classroom

Jeff Newsom, tech teacher at Penn-Trafford High School, is quick with advice for educators new to teaching robotics:

  • Pick a robotics system that's "well established," he said. "The last thing you want to do is invest a lot of money into a technology that may not be there in a few years."

  • But plan for upgrades. Right now, Newsom is facing an upgrade from a legacy VEX platform to the newest one, which means he needs to learn new programming (he's heading to the Academy this summer for the latest training) and has to refresh his robots. "It's just like a school buying computers. You have to keep them updated."

  • Figure out your goal. Is it just to expose students to the basic concepts or go more in-depth? Will you be preparing students so that eventually they can build their own robots? Will you be competing? All of those require a different level of commitment and PD, "in order to teach it."

  • Research your professional development options. "Don't go blind into one of these classes," he insisted. "Getting exposure to the topics and having curriculum from which to work helps you out."

  • Prepare your students for failure. As Newsom explained, "I tell my students, you're going to fail 20 times before you succeed; you may try 15 different things before you even get it to kind of work. That's where the learning happens."

  • You don't have to be the expert. "I'll introduce a lesson, but I'm more of a facilitator," said Newsom. "Then as students are working, I can go around and help them individually."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at dian@dischaffhauser.com or on Twitter @schaffhauser.