Tag Archive: robotics


At an event in Chicago this month, a rich and diverse group of experts was convened by Bill Cllinton to explore and develop concrete plans to improve STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education.  During this event, President Clinton signed autographs in which he wrote “Explore and Discover!” – a wonderful expression that applies to science, but not to engineering.  I’d be more convinced that engineering matters to him had he written “Invent and Build.”

Yes, there were representatives there from the Maker community, as well as some genuine engineers, but as far as most schools are concerned, STEM still means science and mathematics.  And this problem is not restricted to the US; I find it in other countries as well. Perhaps it is because engineering graduates have chosen to not become school teachers, and the job falls to folks in other fields.  But the  confusion around the difference between science and engineering continues.  Many teachers have no idea how to build anything from scratch.  I had a teacher come into my office a few weeks ago.  He saw a soldering iron on my desk and thought it was a microphone.  And, unless you are convulsed with laughter at the previous sentence, you may want to ask when was the last time you designed and built something from scratch yourself.

Here are some ways to see how much you like to think like engineers.  Do you have instructables.com bookmarked on your browser?  Do you subscribe the Make Magazine?  Do you know how to fix a leaky faucet?  And more fundamentally, do you even care how to  do things like this?

The practical side of education has historically been the role of the career and technical education schools.  The academic schools have focused on headwork, as though this was enough.  I argue that it is not nearly enough.

Personally, I’m working on some student projects in robotics because it introduced programming and building real things – two skills often left out of the academic school curriculum.

Now I have absolutely nothing against science and mathematics – I have degrees or minors in all four STEM fields, and respect them all.  But I also do not get them confused.  This confusion will hurt us!

We will continue to hear more about STEM until we are sick of it.  It seems to me we should get serious about all four of these fields before that happens.

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One of my major concerns with all the current interest in STEM education is that the bulk of the efforts I’ve seen are focused on the Science and Math parts of the topic, with Technology and Engineering taking a back seat to everything else. To me, Technology goes way beyond using computers to create documents, but includes the ability to build one’s own programs from scratch. On the engineering side, my feeling is that kids need more opportunities to invent and build things with their hands – engaging in the kind of tinkering most engineers get to do. There are, of course, many schools that do offer a balanced approach to STEM, and they are to be applauded. But there are many more who do not offer the richness that hands-on construction affords. We have libraries to enrich kids heads. Does your school have workshops where they can enrich their hands and minds together?

The situation is made even worse for many kids who are having trouble in school, since they are often funneled into even more draconian rote-learning environments rather than being given the chance to explore learning in ways that might well be more natural to them.

My bias is home grown. I’ve been an electronics tinkerer since I was a little kid. I used to find old radios that I would take apart for their parts, some of which ended up in projects of my own design. I had no teachers helping me – I just figured things out for myself, with the support of my folks who helped provide me with the tools of construction, some of which I still use today. Of course my tinkering took place decades before personal computers were invented. Programming was replaced by building. And, yes, I made plenty of mistakes and did some stupid things – but, through it all I learned a lot.

By the time I got my PhD and started working at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, I had developed both my hands and my mind. Since (among other things) I have degrees in engineering, both of these domains got a good workout. For example, one design methodology I learned (once the personal computer came into existence) was that there was a decision one made as a designer as to which tasks were better done in software, and which ones were best done with hardware. Since I worked in both fields, this kind of thinking made great sense to me.

But this trip down memory lane has a point – simply that far too many young people would have no idea what I’m talking about. But this can change, almost for free. Furthermore, it can change in ways that are appropriate for young children as well as for adults – all using the same tools.

First, on the programming front, the Scratch language from MIT  is accessible to all and, through its construction-set metaphors, builds good programming habits if students decide to learn more traditional languages later. This free tool can address a lot of the missing materials on the Technology side of STEM.

On the Engineering side of STEM, one amazing and inexpensive tool is the Arduino programmable controller. This open source piece of hardware acts as the interface between the computer and (for example) a robot built by a student with a few parts and recycled materials.

Basically, you create a program for the Arduino that will sense inputs of various types (light, sound, physical pressure, temperature, etc.)and then, based on your program design, run motors, control lamps, and do myriad things limited only by your imagination. While you are free to build your own Arduino system from scratch, most choose to purchase a fully assembled board (shown above) for about $30, or $TB 0.1 (one tenth the cost of a traditional textbook) from vendors like Sparkfun whose catalog also includes all the other electrical components you might need for your projects. Even RadioShack has jumped on the Arduino bandwagon!

As for programming the Arduino, the free software from the Arduino site contains all you need to create programs to be downloaded to your board. But, the language in which these programs are written is not as easy to master as languages like Scratch.

Not to worry – there is a special version of Scratch for the Arduino device (Scratch for Arduino). By connecting your Arduino to the USB port of your computer and creating programs in this version of Scratch, you’ve opened the door for Technology and Engineering education in some pretty powerful ways.

The screen above shows a couple of programs that cause lights to blink in sequence, and to plot the level of light hitting a photocell used to turn the lights off. I could have just as easily created a Scratch program to run an electric car that follows an arbitrary line drawn on the floor – or to have a robot solve a maze – or just about anything else. Now while the Arduino does not have enough power to run most motors directly, motor driver circuits can be built using about a quarter’s worth of parts.

Once kids get started with the Arduino, they suddenly develop an interest in learning to use multimeters, oscilloscopes, and a bunch of other tools (including soldering irons.) They start to view the world of the made through new eyes once they have learned to make things themselves.

So, when it comes to STEM education, I think we should get serious or go home. The tools are there along with amazingly rich libraries of support materials. It is beyond time for us to realize that Science and Math alone do not a STEM curriculum make.