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Introducing Youth to STEM Through Robotics

Robin Baumgartner jokes that when she was growing up in Idaho, if someone had told her she could have been an engineer, she would have thought they meant the person who waved from a passing train.

“It wouldn’t have occurred to me that they meant being a scientist,” said Baumgartner who is now a science program coordinator with University of Idaho Extension 4-H Youth Development. “I see it all the time with Idaho kids — there is less exposure to STEM careers, especially in rural areas, so being a scientist doesn’t seem that realistic.”

As the demand for a well-trained STEM workforce grows, 4-H is helping to narrow the gap through programs like FIRST LEGO League Jr., FIRST LEGO League and FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC). The goal for these international competitions is to develop ways to excite kids about STEM careers.

“At first, LEGO and robots are the hook,” said Baumgartner. “But behind all that, these programs bring science and technology to life in a way that’s fun for kids.”

Teams prepare for tournaments by researching real-world problems and designing, building and programming robots to fulfill missions. They follow the engineering design process — steps engineers follow to design a solution to a problem. Students learn block-based coding, computer-aided design (CAD), JAVA script and 3-D printers for more advanced competitions.

Skills for Life

Not every participant will go into a STEM field, but many develop greater communication skills like conflict resolution and teamwork.

“Kids learn growth-mindset skills,” Baumgartner said. “They go from failing and giving up to realizing they just don’t know how to do it yet; they’ll uncover a solution eventually.”

According to a Brandeis study, there is evidence that kids participating in programs like FIRST feel more able to handle stressful situations. That, as well as expressing higher interest in high math and pursuing STEM-based careers, makes childhood exposure to STEM activities an important tool in helping youth meet current career needs.

And sometimes, youth see potential in themselves where they hadn’t before. An Idaho alternative-school robotics team composed of students from an underserved, high-risk population recently traveled to the U of I campus for a competition. On campus, admissions counselors talked them through financial aid and the application process.

“Driving home that night, a kid in the back of the bus declared suddenly, ‘I’m going to college,’” said Baumgartner. “He probably never saw the possibility until he was exposed to the potential of what campus was like, what his life could be.”

FIRST Tech Challenge

Baumgartner hopes to grow FTC in Idaho as a next step to advance after FIRST LEGO League. FTC focuses participant’s problem-solving skills on how engineers function. They present their engineering notebook to judges, which reads like a lab project — sketches, meeting notes, the math and the physics of each trial and error.

Ultimately, the challenge is transforming their basic robot kit into a product that fulfills its given mission. The robot is limited by size — it fits into an 18-inch cube at the competition’s start, and can unfold like origami during the match. The creative end products have impressed Baumgartner.

“I’ve seen low-tech robot parts made of plywood, roofing shingles, carwash sponges, up to student-designed custom parts that were 3-D printed,” said Baumgartner.

The competition isn’t focused on just how well the robot is built. Judges ask teams to explain FIRST’s core values — principles of professionalism, cooperation and competition — to see if participants understand that every team member’s voice is important and competitions are only effective if they compare everyone’s best work.

“It’s not uncommon to see neighboring teams helping their competition get ready to pass field inspection,” said Baumgartner.

Growing Robotics

The make-up of robotics teams varies. Thirty to 40 percent in Idaho are school-based teams, either with robotics as part of the curriculum or as an afterschool program, but teams also come from homeschool families and 4-H clubs.

Part of the FTC program focuses on community service and public outreach. Teens help UI Extension educators at events like STEM Day at the Western Idaho Fair or STEM Matters Day at the Idaho Capitol. Teen participants also run LEGO robotics summer camps for younger participants.

Though FIRST programs in Idaho are growing in popularity, recruitment largely happens by word-of-mouth and testimonies of youth themselves. Seniors from Grangeville High School trying to start a robotics program for their senior project contacted one Twin Falls FTC team for assistance. Now, Grangeville has four elementary-aged teams.

“The system works best when the kids are the driving force,” said Baumgartner.

Volunteers Wanted

All FIRST programs are volunteer-oriented, so there are many ways for Idahoans to get involved.

“You can be a mentor, help at competitions, make a team,” Baumgartner said. “You don’t have to be a tech person, especially with the younger teams. This is the kids’ program; they do the work.”

Adults are needed to guide teams through schedules and deadlines, as well as teaching kids how to figure out problems together. Those interested in helping at an event can contact Robin Baumgartner at 208-364-4603 or rbaumgartner@uidaho.edu.

To learn more about the FIRST progression of programs, visit www.firstinspires.org.

Article by Aubrey Stribling, University of Idaho Extension

Published in December 2018.

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