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From the FLL Floor, Part 2: What STEM does an FLL Team learn?

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Prepping-croppedIn Part 2, we’re going to take a look at what an FLL team gets out of the experience. Every student goes home with a medal for participation, and some earn trophies as well. But what do students really take home with them in terms of learning and experience?

As we mentioned in Part 1 of our series, we interviewed coaches at the recent FLL Pittsburgh Regional Championship, and found FLL to be a runaway success at creating an authentic environment for learning 21st Century workplace skills. Now let’s look at what students might learn from FLL in terms of the STEM disciplines: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, and lasting connections to learning.

Most coaches pointed immediately to the research presentation as being the key conduit for Science learning. In doing the research on their topics, students needed to develop a strong understanding of central topics such as energy flow (science) and interpreting schematics (engineering). Communicating that knowledge in a coherent presentation was, of course, a great exercise in technical communication.

The most commonly identified “Math moments” occurred on the robot building and programming side. Coaches frequently cited instances where students tried (sometimes successfully, sometimes not) to establish a structured understanding of one of two key robot ratios: the ratio of wheel size to distance traveled, or the ratio of wheel rotations to distance traveled. A few coaches mentioned angles as a useful topic of discussion.

An interesting trend emerged in teams’ solutions to the need for technical knowledge of programming: peer mentoring. Perhaps half the coaches acknowledged that they themselves had limited or no knowledge of how to program the robot, and instead relied exclusively on key students in their organizations to both do the programming and pass their knowledge on to younger students.

Of the coaches who did have programming expertise or training, only a few did much formal preparation with their students. Most organized a short (day or week-long) programming training session, typically with a combination of their own homemade materials and the sample programs built into the MINDSTORMS Programming Software. A few groups used prepared curriculum from the CMU Robotics Academy’s “Robotics Engineering” series, and one or two used Robotics Academy “Camp-on-a-Disk” products.

The amount of Engineering process that groups employed varied greatly. Some teams were quite rigorous, starting with an analysis of the functional requirements of the problem, then identifying key capabilities that their robots would need, and producing multiple robot prototypes that fulfilled those requirements. The prototypes were then demonstrated, and students debated which designs or design characteristics they wished to use for the final version, based on the technical merits of each.

The more common pattern for robot design, however, was for groups to start with basic models built from provided directions (from curriculum or the internet) and modify them to suit the needs of the challenge. This is altogether not that unlike the way many real-world products are created; sometimes the wheel just doesn’t need to be reinvented.

One interesting observation from the data was that all attending teams did take preparation for the competition seriously, but most only within the timeframe of the challenge itself. A few teams integrated their robotics activities across multiple years (for instance, having a 3rd grade team-in-training), or with summer programs. Some were fortunate enough to get “project class” status within schools. The norm, however, was for the teams to pop into existence with the announcement of the challenge, and then disappear just as quickly when the competition ended. Given that repetition and explicitly-made connections are crucial to learning, this limited timeframe of existence could be an important limitation on the FLL program’s ability to connect to classes or other activities in students’ lives.

So potentially, STEM coverage within FLL context could be quite extensive. In practice, though, several factors limit its depth. Science content is often well-researched for research presentations, and presentation of technical information is key to that event. However, as we noted in Part 1 of this article, only half the students on a given team tended to be involved with the research.

The most often-cited math learning, on the other hand, took place with the members of the team building and programming the robot. These teams were often unsuccessful at this task, however, falling back on guess-and-test for the actual competition run. Plus, only two applications were even identified within the competition context.

Technical knowledge of building and programming relies, in many cases, on student-to-student transmission and self-guided learning. Coaches are often not experienced enough to guide students to a greater degree, and those that are, often do not succeed in getting students to employ more robust programming and design techniques. Most robots, in the end, use point-and-shoot Move Block programming with little or no sensor control other than the rotation sensors built into the motors, and a line tracking behavior found in the sample program area.

And finally, the use of sound Engineering process varied greatly between groups for reasons that can only be speculated on. Some groups analyzed product requirements and built prototypes, conducted design reviews, and

planned schedules. Others simply picked out challenges they liked and started trying to accomplish them in time, pieces fall where they may.

On the whole, FLL provides a clear and powerful learning platform for 21st Century workplace skills, but its case for being a strong STEM skills provider in its current form is substantially less complete. The potential is there, as a few highly successful teams have shown great adherence to principles of good design, and students involved with the research presentations have great opportunities to learn relevant science content.

Some piece, though, seems to be critically missing. A crucial connection needs to be made to more rigorous STEM content and practices before the full learning potential of the FLL experience can be tapped. Perhaps a guide for coaches and mentors to structure their FLL build season around sound Engineering Design practices. Perhaps more easily accessible student training in programming above and beyond the point-and-shoot Move Block level. Whatever the solution may be, finding the right pieces to infuse a great learning experience with great learning content is the next critical step in the robotics learning endeavor.

FLL is a great model for teaching 21st Century skills. If robotics education as a whole can bring its STEM-teaching capabilities up to the same level, it would be a combination of unequivocal strength.

Game on.

Agree? Disagree? What do YOU think would help to improve the level of STEM learning via FLL or other robotics competitions?

Comments welcome below!

Written by Ross Higashi

December 10th, 2009 at 3:24 pm