The future of Robotic and STEM/STEAM Competitions and Instruction?
The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020–2021 greatly impacted robotics instruction and competitions at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. Most, if not all robotic competitions were canceled or significantly curtailed. One explicit example was the VEX and VEX IQ Robot Challenges and Tournaments. During the 2019–2020 school year, there were many tournaments or leagues throughout the Southern California region and the state.
Many teams worked extremely had to qualify for the state tournaments, Nationals or Worlds until the pandemic closed all public events. This expectantly was extremely disappointing for all of the students, coaches, and parents who had spent countless hours in designing, creating, and coding their robots at all educational levels.
Additionally, in the spring of 2020, the Rally in the Valley (RIV) held for 6 consecutive years, at California State University — Northridge, California (CSUN), was canceled when the CSUN campus was closed due to the pandemic. Even if students are allowed to return to the campus in the spring of 2022 there is no guarantee that over 1000 students, coaches, parents, and community members will be allowed to participate and attend the RIV.
While there were some virtual robotic and STEAM events throughout the state and country, the pandemic greatly slowed the progress that students had in robotics and STEAM education.
If it is an axiom that robotics and STEAM education is important for 21st Century learners, what is the future of robotic and STEAM competitions? Is the objective of robotics and STEAM instruction and education to win awards or is it to equip students with the skills they truly need to be the scientist, engineers, mathematics, coders and problem-solvers of tomorrow.
If it is to endow students with the 21st technology and engineering skills they truly need, then expansion beyond simply robotics competitions is essential.
As schools slowly allow students to return to their classrooms, most likely during the 2021–2022 school year, when will students be allowed to reengage in robotics and STEAM instruction? This is a great unknown. As schools begin to budget for the next school year, robotics and robotics instruction will not be high on the priority list. Teachers who have the interest and desire to teach robotics and robotics skills maybe looking for activities that students can do individually or in small groups and on-line. Therefore, I propose that robotics competitions be reimagined. The primary question is what robotic skills can students do at home as a team, virtually on-line, and finally be engaging and fun while also providing a foundation in 21st Century skill sets?
I believe that students need significant and deep computer skills in skills such as virtual 3-D Design, Coding, as well as hands-on activities. I believe that we need to be thoughtful by providing a variety of experiences that engage students from as many different learning styles as possible.
According the VARK Model, distinct learning styles were identified — visual, auditory, reading/writing and kinesthetic. Briefly, visual learners are students who best internalize and synthesize information when presented in graphic form. These types of learners tend to be holistic who process information best when it is presented to them as a robust meal rather than piecemeal.
Auditory learners are most successful when they are given opportunities to hear information presented to them vocally. Students who fall into this modality often find success in group activities where they can discuss the material vocally with their classmates. Kinesthetic learners are hands-on who need to take a physically and active role in the learning process to “internalize” the information.
These type of students, due to their active nature, often have the most difficult time in a “conventional” classroom setting. However, they often find great success and thrive in labs. Finally, students who work best in the reading/writing modality demonstrate a strong learning preference for the written word. This modality lends itself to conducting research on-line and engagement in text-heavy resources.
In order to accommodate the variety of learning modalities I believe that STEAM and robotic competitions could be “reimagined” to offer a variety of challenges that engage all interested students preparing them for today and tomorrow.