Robots Take Over the Classroom

R2D2? Wall-E? Optimus Prime? The Terminator? None of the above. The favorite machine for hundreds of students across the state of Nebraska is CEENBoT™, a robot developed by the Computer and Electronics Engineering department at The Peter Kiewit Institute and the College of Education at the University of Nebraska Omaha. This customizable, affordable robot is helping students to learn about one of the fastest growing industries while offering them a fun gateway to the world of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education.

A report from the U.S. Department of Commerce sums it up well: “Increasingly, the specific skills embodied in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education fuel the innovative processes that are especially valuable to our economy. These skills are sought by companies across the economy as they look to expand their workforces.” As technology evolves and grows, so does the need for workers with a passion for science, engineering and mathematics. Grooming this highly sought after workforce starts long before the office or lab; it starts with instilling a love of STEM education at a young age. To help boost interest in STEM (and the problem solving skills that go with it), many schools are turning to robotics. The result? Engaged teachers and students who can’t wait to get to work.

At the Nebraska Robotics Expo – an annual competition hosted by the University of Nebraska Omaha’s Department of Education and the University of Nebraska Lincoln’s Department of Computers and Electronics Engineering – more than 80 teams from around the state come together to compete in events that required them to build, program, customize and operate their own robots. The theme of this year’s Expo was agribusiness. Students (grades K through 12) compete in four events: using their robot to gather animals, feed and farming tools; navigating their robots remotely using virtual controls and a visual of the course on iPad screens; 3-on-3 robot foosball; and an autonomous course that required students to spend prep-time programming their robots to pilot a course.

Because STEM-focused careers also require creativity, this year’s Expo included a Creative Visual Arts Expo, where students submit robot-themed artwork that demonstrates the relationships between art, science, technology, and math.

At this year’s Expo, seven local corporations and organizations sponsored the event and 18 businesses and community organizations hosted a STEM information fair where attendees could learn about the various STEM opportunities and programs offered across the state. Ed Hollingsworth, senior director of telecommunications engineering at Union Pacific Railroad explains why his company is involved with the Nebraska Robotics Expo, “the thing that fosters our interest in this program is that Union Pacific is a big consumer of electrical and mechanical engineers, so we’re very interested in the supply of engineers.”

Participating in robotics competitions is fun, but it also teaches responsibility, team work and problem solving. Not only do teachers report that students who participate in robotics programs are more engaged and interested in other STEM classes, the teachers themselves also report feeling inspired and reenergized. The robots act as a tool to help students understand the practical application of their studies, allowing them to imagine themselves continuing their STEM education or pursuing related careers.

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