Robots get students motivated to pursue STEM careers

17 March 2011

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Robotics is a great way to engage young students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects. With this in mind, researchers from the University of Massachusetts Lowell (UML) and a non-profit partner, Machine Science Inc. of Cambridge, set up a three year NSF funded program dubbed iCODE. The goal of the program was to increase the number of middle-school and high-school students opting for IT and STEM careers later in life. This involved getting the students more comfortable with technology through hands-on robotics projects. The students were also introduced to educational and career opportunities through specialized events and university visits and were encouraged to share inventions or collaborate with students and undergraduate mentors.

The program ran from 2006 to 2009 and enrolled 250 students, some of which stayed multiple years. The format included weekly after-school sessions, weekend robotics exhibitions, competitions and intensive summer camps. The main resource for the project was a websystem ( that contained tutorial-like learning material and interactive quizzes. To avoid the need for teachers and students to install complicated software on their computer, such as compilers, a Java applet was developed that enabled users to write code for microcontrollers directly in a web-browser and then download the compiled code to their robot in one click. Two robotic platforms were made available. The first one, UML’s Super Cricket, consisted in a printed circuit board programmed in Logo. Machine Science’s platform was a bread-board development kit, with a PIC microcontroller intended to be programmed in C.

The video above shows some of the many robots that were entered in an annual Sumo Tournament at the Boston Museum of Science. Based on results from an external evalutator (Goodman Research Group of Cambridge), the program was found to effectively engage students, give them real engineering and programming skills, improve their attitudes towards STEM subjects, and increase their interest in STEM career pathways.

Sabine Hauert is President of Robohub and Associate Professor at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory
Sabine Hauert is President of Robohub and Associate Professor at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory

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