Victoria Serrano Helps Panamanian Students Discover STEM Through Lego Robots

In marketplaces and rec rooms, this engineering professor inspires children

Photo: Angelica Calderon

THE INSTITUTE IEEE Member Victoria Serrano, an engineering professor at the Universidad Tecnológica de Panamá in Chiriquí, has come across many preuniversity students who don’t have a clue what kinds of STEM careers are available. She understood because she didn’t become interested in electrical engineering until she was in high school.

In 2016 she decided to help such teens by launching STEM Beyond the Borders. The program used robots to teach preuniversity students in Panama about STEM subjects. Classes were held not only in classrooms but also in public marketplaces and church recreation rooms.  

The program received financial support from the IEEE Control Systems Society and EPICS in IEEE, which aims to empower students to apply technical solutions to aid their communities. Today, Serrano continues her mission through independent outreach efforts in the country.

For her work, Serrano received the 2019 IEEE Education Activities Board Meritorious Achievement Award in Outreach and Informal Education. The award honors IEEE members who teach STEM skills outside a classroom setting.

DISCOVERING HER PASSION

Serrano, born and raised in Panama, found her calling for educational outreach while pursuing her master’s degree and doctorate in electrical engineering at Arizona State University, in Tempe.

She says she was determined to focus only on her studies; however, a fellow graduate student, Michael Thompson, asked her to help out at the university’s Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers chapter and the ASU Mechanical-Autonomous Vehicles Club, where students research, design, and fly small radio-controlled aircraft. When Serrano visited local schools on behalf of both organizations, she taught the preuniversity students about mathematical concepts, using hands-on activities such as designing mechanical birds.

“When I realized what wonderful things could be done through outreach programs in the United States, I wanted to bring those types of projects to my home country,” Serrano says.

When she created the curriculum for STEM Beyond the Borders, Serrano took inspiration from those volunteering activities.

INSPIRING STUDENTS

She says the most popular hands-on activity she teaches today in Panama is building Lego Mindstorms snake robots and racing them. Serrano creates the obstacle course, which has a curvy trajectory. She devises a theme for each session she teaches, such as military combat.

The students use blueprints to build their robots. Components include a DC battery, temperature and sound sensors, a Wi-Fi nano adapter, and a USB cable.

The students program and control their robot using the computational platform Matlab and simulation software Simulink. They conduct experiments to learn more about their robot’s speed to better prepare it for the race.

The project takes about two weeks to complete.

“When developing my program, I didn’t focus only on having the students build the robot,” she says. “They also learn math concepts such as distance, time, and how to calculate velocity.”

After the race, the students prepare a presentation and a poster to explain what experiments they conducted and why.

Serrano says one of her most satisfying moments is learning that one of her students has decided to pursue a STEM degree because of the program.

Of the 15 high school students who participated in the first STEM Beyond the Borders session in 2016, nine went on to study engineering at Universidad Tecnológica de Panamá.

Since then, Serrano has taught close to 100 students through her program.

As the demand for sessions and locations grows, Serrano is developing new ways to bring the program to more students across Panama.

She created CIATEC, which lets students access her Mindstorms robot-building course as well as a session on how to build circuit boards using Arduino, an open-source electronics platform. CIATEC incorporates the Spanish words for science (ciencia), art (arte), and technology (tecnología).

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