NRI: Co-Robots to Engage Next Generation of Students in STEM Learning

National Science Foundation

Overview:
Correctly, the 2009 Roadmap for US Robotics report predicted that robotics technology would transform the future of the US workforce and households. From Roomba vacuum cleaners to Wii video games, we increasingly see robotic technology in work spaces and homes. Yet, the US continues to lag behind China, South Korea, Japan, and European Union in its investment in robotics research and education. The Next Generation Science Standards for Today’s Students and Tomorrow’s Workforce responds to this critical need by providing a curricular framework for using crosscutting concepts and disciplinary ideas that: have broad importance across science and engineering disciplines; are taught around a key organizing concept (like health or water) and use key tool (pedagogical platform); have a significant context for students and are explicitly connected to societal needs; and are teachable and learnable over multiple grades. Informed by this framework, our proposed NRI aims to develop, test, and assess two co-robotic platforms with high impact potential and longevity as a pedagogical platform (use is applicable from 4th grade through graduate school learning). Two unique robotics educational platforms will be used to teach 6th-8th grade: an educational underwater glider called GUPPIE and a surface electromyography (sEMG)- controlled manipulator called Neu-pulator. Both of these platforms can be categorized as co-robot and cost less than $1000. GUPPIE is an unmanned vehicle that has application in monitoring and inspection of the environment and can be used to introduce students to the application 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 aim to amplify or compensate for human capabilities. We hypothesize that meaningful contexts and hands-on learning with co-robotic platforms will broaden impact to diverse audiences and increase interest in critical STEM areas. The overall goal of the proposed NRI is to develop and evaluate the use of co-robotic platforms in learning contexts that are socially meaningful, especially for underrepresented students (female students from rural, low socioeconomic areas in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan). Our specific objectives are to: 1) Optimize Michigan Tech’s co-robotic platform designs for teaching STEM concepts. 2) Develop educational activities/curriculum utilizing Michigan Tech’s co-robotic platforms. 3) Investigate the co-robotic platforms effectiveness in engaging students in STEM learning.

Intellectual Merit:
The proposed work will develop a pedagogical platform and evaluation method that can be easily translated for classroom practice from grades 4th-12th and in undergraduate to graduate degree programs. Training teachers in platform use during teacher workshops will help schools respond to and integrate new science standards – efficiently and effectively using meaningful contexts. Continued online training and modules will be available to broadly disseminate platform applications for informal and formal learning contexts. The hardware development and programming of co-robots will teach critical analytical thinking. The nature of co-robotic platforms, on the other hand, will inspire students to become integrative designers. By exercising both analytical thinking and design skills, these co-robotic platforms will improve students’ ability for creative problem solving, and ultimately increase individual motivation for pursuing STEM academic and career pathways. The project will produce research that compares the effectiveness of mission-based and application-based robotics activities for engaging students in STEM.

Investigators: Nina Mahmoudian and Mo Rastgaar