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COE exploring new ways to teach STEM

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COE exploring new ways to teach STEM

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May 11, 2014

A small robot on wheels whirs like an electric toothbrush as it circumvents a water bottle in the middle of the table in a UGA College of Education classroom. The maneuver draws "oohs" and "aahs" from the students, and finally, cheering and clapping.

But this is no ordinary class. This class is made up of more than a dozen area school teachers and technology and media specialists who spent a recent morning learning how to build and program a robot in a teacher workshop hosted by the COE's department of career and information studies.

The workshop was part of a partnership the college has formed with South Korean educational robotics firm Roborobo to advance science, technology, engineering and mathematics, known as STEM, education in Northeast Georgia.

The partnership is bringing Roborobo's robotics education kits to the U.S. for the first time, according to Ikseon Choi, an associate professor in the learning design and technology program who is leading the project.

Roborobo has donated more than $23,000 worth of robotics education kits to be disseminated by UGA to local schools. The company's president and several representatives visited the college in early April to participate in demonstrations and workshops.

The UGA Educational Technology Center, based in the COE, will be the hub for this collaboration, and its staff will deliver educational robotics workshops for area K-12 teachers, students and parents.

In the initial April workshop, 13 robotics education kits were given to participating educators from elementary, middle and high schools in Barrow, Clarke, Hart and Jackson counties. Teachers from Timothy Road and Whit Davis elementary schools in Clarke County submitted a proposal for more kits and received six more each. Two more proposals for additional kits are under evaluation.

The teachers participating in the first workshop were impressed with the educational robotics kits and excited to have the opportunity to start a robotics program at their school.

"The overall build quality of the robotics kit is exemplary. The content of the accompanying workbooks is well written and has educational value well above a set of basic building instructions. The Robric software was intuitive and easy to use. Finally, the price point was shockingly affordable," said Lee Bane, Race to the Top math integration specialist for Barrow County Schools.

Tammi Gowen, challenge educator for Gum Springs Elementary School in Jackson County, said she wanted to extend student knowledge in robotics but knew very little about it herself.

"We already have our students work through Code.org. This is the perfect way to have them understand and use their code to visually see the robot moving," said Gowen. "Robotics is of high interest to my students. I showed them a few pieces of the kit that was provided to us and they were ready to build."

With underpinnings in the pedagogical theory of constructionism, which is learning when we make or tinker with an object, educational robotics provides opportunities for students to think more deeply and allows them to relate their problem-solving strategies to real-world contexts, according to Roger Hill, professor of workforce education.

The college's interest in educational robots arose several years ago during a revision of an elective course for undergraduate elementary education majors titled "Creative Activities for Teachers" (ETES 2320).

"We wanted to gear it more toward STEM," said Hill, who teaches the course. "It is part of the core for elementary education students. They have three choices. They can take this course, a music course or an art course. This one gives them so many good, practical things that they can use and ties in with STEM."

Hill said when he revised the course, he used Lego educational robotics kits, and still does, but many of his students told him those kits were too expensive to be purchased by a school. This sent Hill looking for a more affordable option so robotics can be integrated into local schools realistically.

About the same time, Choi was looking for an educational robotics kit for his third-grade son. He discovered Roborobo when he visited family in his native South Korea.

"Turns out this one (Roborobo) is a good bit more economical and doesn't look as much like a toy," said Hill. "In fact, you can actually see all the working parts inside."

Choi contacted the company's owner, who is a former education professor himself, who is eager to get his products into the U.S. education market.

"So here's a company that has an interest in seeing their products used in education and we're seeing a chance to develop some educational materials as well as do some educational research," said Hill.

"When you see these (robotics) presentations, the companies will tell you that it's going to stimulate students' problem-solving capabilities and good thinking, that students will be better in math and science after this," said Hill. "But when you ask, 'Where's the research?' they'll say, 'Well, we've done a lot of these workshops and parents tell us this has happened.'"

"So, in reality, it's kind of anecdotal. There's not really a lot of data-based research that's available. Carnegie Mellon is doing some and a few other universities, but we're interested in doing that too because we don't want to prepare our future teachers with things that are not based on research."

With the demand for STEM education increasing in today's workforce, the new department is in a perfect position to bridge gaps between disciplines.

"We have faculty who really understand how people learn and how to do instruction, plus the technology education piece," said Hill. "Our faculty are excited about teaching people how to be successful 21st-century learners. How do I get information? How do I use information? How do I use technology?

"Ours is a more integrated approach," said Hill. "Now, with the ETC officially part of the department, if something like this drops on us, we've got the training capability. They already have the mechanisms in place to do a workshop like this. They've been doing it for years."

It is the vision of Roborobo, Choi and the ETC to grow robotics education, including the development of national and international competitions in the U.S., beginning with Georgia.

The ETC has a staff of four educational technology professionals working with school districts in the region and throughout Georgia to provide professional learning, consulting and service for educators to promote the use of technology in support of teaching, learning and leadership. For more information, contact Emily Hodge at 706-542-0240 or ttc@uga.edu