Robot Rescue: STEM Workshop

NAPLES, NY – SUNY Potsdam Professor Dr. Anthony Betrus led a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) educational workshop the morning of Tuesday, April 12, 2016, for a group of fifth graders at Naples Elementary School. The students, guided by Dr. Betrus, worked together to program a robot to reach a second robot by navigating through an obstacle course they built in their classroom. The robots are part of a STEM educational kit called Dash and Dot, which is one of many activities and tools in Dr. Betrus’ suite of STEM learning resources. Using a mobile app called Blockly, the team was able to connect wirelessly to the first robot, named Dash, and send a sequence of simple commands that instructed the robot how to move through an obstacle course in order to reach the “captured” second robot, Dot. The instructions for movement were organized by the students ahead of time and then sent to Dash, which followed them step-by-step without additional input from the students. The instructions themselves are very simple – for instance, they might instruct Dash to move forward for two seconds, then turn 90 degrees to the left, then move forward one second – but this process of anticipating obstacles and programming directions is in contrast to the sort of real-time interactions most students are used to when controlling a remote control car, or a vehicle in a video game, and requires planning and problem solving in order to be successful. As a group, the students collaborated on different combinations of instructions to send to Dash to navigate around several obstacles to reach Dot, initially finding their queued directions coming up short of success.  After several adaptations, they were able to program a successful series of instructions in Blockly to cause Dash to “rescue” Dot. “Working with Blockly in this way provides a fun and meaningful experience for students to work with code and to experience working as a team to systematically solve a problem using 21st century skills,” says Dr. Betrus, who, with his team, has been exploring educational curricula for students and teachers alike to work with robotics, programming, and other state-of-the-art STEM concepts, bringing these skills to schools and providing students and teachers a chance to experience these opportunities firsthand. The student response was fantastic and the 5th graders not only learned a bit about code but they also had a lot of fun doing it – by the end of the session the main question students had was “where can I get my own Dash and Dot?”