How to get students excited about engineering? Bring in the robots

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Photo: University of Pennsylvania / NSF

Over the past three summers, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have conducted an interesting educational experiment aimed at answering one question: Can robots get high school students interested in science and engineering in college?

The answer, as you probably guessed, is yes.

The researchers, led by professor Vijay Kumar at the General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception (GRASP) Lab, organized a three-week robotics summer camp to teach the students what robots are capable of and how to build them.

The program included lectures, tours, and of course lots of hands-on activities (practice and applications first, teaching of fundamentals later -- a reverse of the traditional approach to engineering education. (Because, yes, engineering schools that tie theory and practice together have happier students.

But still, why use robots?

I quote from the release material:

Because robots are complex systems that integrate several different fields, including computer science, mechanical engineering and electronics, they are a good example of applied science and engineering. They can also be exciting and fun to build and operate. Robot design competitions are being used at the high school and undergraduate levels to help students understand how these fields can be used to produce real-world applications.

This top-down approach to science and engineering education is the reverse of how these fields are usually introduced to students. The authors note that typically students must go through years of learning theoretical concepts in mathematics, physics, and other fields before they are allowed to think about putting these concepts into practice. Many students, the authors believe, lose interest in these fields because they must wait so long before experiencing the excitement and creativity that comes from finding solutions to intriguing challenges.

This summer, the program attracted more than 20 students from across the world. The researchers conclude that teaching students how to design, build, and operate robots is an effective way of getting them excited about science and engineering.

Need more proof? Some participants from the first camp are now studying engineering in college, including three former participants who are enrolled at Penn. Sure, maybe those students would get into engineering anyway, with or without the robotics summer camp. But the point is that this is a micro-experiment that, with others, could lead to a major transformation in engineering education. It's about time.

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