Robots are becoming ubiquitous in our lives. They have moved beyond factories to many other environments including health care and our homes. The success of FIRST robotics shows their power to draw more young people to STEM education and careers. We believe that robots can do more to reach a wider audience including female and minority students. Robotics present a rich multi-disciplinary learning experience that touches upon several STEM disciplines including electronics, controls, fabrication, and computer programming. To broaden the representation in STEM disciplines, it is necessary to show students how they can make a difference and solve important problems. Mission-based robots show off the capabilities of robots but may not spur the imagination into coming up with ways to use robots to solve problems.
Our team developed two educational robotic platforms that cost less than $500: an underwater glider called GUPPIE and a surface electromyography (sEMG)–controlled manipulator called Neu-pulator. GUPPIE is an underwater robot that has application in monitoring and inspection of the environment, thus introducing the concept of robots as co-explorers in everyday life. Neu-pulator is a human-interactive robot that uses electrical activity of human muscles to move a manipulator. It introduces students to assistive robots, which are a class of co-robots that amplify or compensate for human capabilities. We hypothesize that meaningful contexts and hands-on learning with these types of robotic platforms will broaden impact to diverse audiences and increase interest in critical STEM areas.
Our university hosts summer educational camps for middle and high school aged students. In 2015, GUPPIE and Neu-pulator were a component of one week-long camp for high schoolers and the sole focus for another week-long camp for middle schoolers. In 2016, the robotics platforms were a component of two week-long camps for high schoolers and the sole focus for two more week-long camps for middle schoolers. In total, 126 students (56 girls and 70 boys) have participated. We are interested in the factors that motivate student participation in robotics activities. Specifically, our research questions include:
• What factors affect student interest in robotics?
• Do the factors differ by gender and grade level?
During each camp week, we collect a variety of data: pre and post-surveys; daily activity assessments; group interviews at the end of the week; and observations. We learned that the top motivation factor for engaging in robotics is enjoyment. As students move from middle to high school, usefulness to career also becomes important. Mastery, in the form of learning a lot or being good at it, was also an important factor for many students.
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