Robots: a hands-on approach to STEM education

Mar 26, 2015


California eighth graders are ranked 45th in the country in math, according to the most recent scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Meanwhile, the pool of jobs requiring math, science, and engineering experience is growing, especially in the Bay Area. For people with the right skills, these jobs have become the latest iteration of the American dream -- steady, livable wages, and plenty of demand.

In San Francisco, a few high schools have started offering hands on tech experience to students in after school robotics clubs. George Washington High School in San Francisco’s Richmond District is one of them. They’ve entered a national robot-building competition of 3,000 teams. They have six weeks to build a robot that can lift and stack big plastic bins, for a regional contest in Davis.

Around week three, about 20 students are clustered in groups in a small classroom. They’re hunched over computer screens, with bucket-sized bubble teas on their desks. On the floor, there’s something that looks like a car battery got in a fight with a Roomba, scooting back and forth on command. The students have been working on it every day after school - all-day on Saturdays too.

“We don't come on Sundays. We would if we could,” says senior Sheldon Lau. “But they don't let us.”

Not only do these students have to build and design a robot from scratch, they have to write code to make it perform specific functions. Taxi Situ described the first time they made the robot move.

“Everyone was cheering, everyone was taking their phones out and taking pictures of it,” says Situ. “SnapChat was a thing.”

For Situ -- and everyone else on the team -- robot building is a completely new experience. This is compounded by the fact that there are only so many people who can help them. Many of the adults in these students’ lives have little understanding of what they are doing.

“My parents aren't really into this techie kind of stuff,” says Lau. “I tell them I'm building a robot and they think I'm building some kind of android that's going to destroy the world or something. I think it's because my parents, they don't work in these kinds of fields, like an engineering field or computer science. They do simple labor work, this is kind of a different world to them.”

So instead the internet -- namely instructional Youtube videos -- have become their textbook. They also get help from adult mentors from nearby tech companies, more seasoned high school competitors, and teachers. Math teacher John Hajel is advisor to the club. He also teaches Computer Science at the school, which has gained popularity throughout the years.

“This is the second year of computer science at Washington,” says Hajel. “They had it years and years ago but budget cuts happened. This year we have four computer science classes, with about hundred and twenty students. It's really good.”

As the Computer Science program at the school gained momentum, Hajel wanted students to get more hands-on training. So did student Stephanie Tam. She had friends on Lowell High School’s accomplished Cardinalbotics team. So they started up a club just like it. Interest wasn’t a problem, but money was. The parts for the robot cost thousands of dollars alone. A neighborhood organization helped the club get $20,000 from Facebook.

Tech money in the SFUSD is not a new thing. This past year alone, Salesforce.Com donated five million dollars to the district. Hajel says he’s grateful for the resources, but the tech giants make some educators uneasy.

“Will they will have a say in the curriculum? Will they have a say in hiring?” asks Hajel. “We want to make sure as teachers that we do appreciate the money, but we don't want them to affect the way things are taught.”

As for the students, they’re not sure what they are going to do, five or six years from now. But whatever it is, they think this experience will prove useful:

“Participating in this club gives us a sense of how a big tech company works,” says Lau. “There's a software team, there's a build team, everything is kind of of linked together and we all have to work together.”

At week six, the robot is undergoing testing to make sure it’s competition ready. Some of the students have morphed into robot-paramedics. The robot is about seven feet tall now, with pincher arms that slide up and down its large frame. When I ask club president Stephanie Tam what she thinks it looks like, she demurely tells me “a guillotine.”

The students maneuver it inside of the elevator to get it outside onto the school’s blacktop. Once outside, the robot trains next to the school’s lacrosse and tennis team. The other students passing by pause to admire the Eaglebots’ handiwork. The team practices making the robot run at certain speeds, and stacking large boxes on top of one another. Each time the robot successfully completes a task, the students look equal parts delighted and surprised. Their advisor John Hajel is right there with them, leading the charge.

This is the last week the students will be allowed to work on their robot, lovingly dubbed the ‘mechaneagle.’ The students step back and admire their robot, taking pictures of it on their phone, against the backdrop of the Golden Gate Bridge. Senior Sheldon Lau is one of them.

"I'm going to send them to my family, to show that you know I've done something," he says.