STEM Gains Steam

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

“We thank you for letting us build science,engineering and technology skills that inspire innovation.”

This note from a team of Iowa City Regina Elementary students underscores the excitement and creativity sparked by connections forged between Iowa schools and the University of Iowa College of Engineering. Those connections have been facilitated and shaped by two programs that are enhancing STEM education in Iowa.

While the STEM disciplines—science, technology, engineering, and math—drive innovation, entrepreneurship, and industry, Iowa has seen a steady decline in K-12 student achievement in STEM subjects as well as a below-national average number of college students majoring in these disciplines.

In an effort to counter these trends, the recently created Iowa Governor’s STEM Advisory Council seeks to increase student interest and achievement in the STEM disciplines.

A partnership between education, policy, and business leaders across the state, the STEM Advisory Council is co-chaired by Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds and University of Northern Iowa President Benjamin Allen. The Council provides funding for pre-K through high school students to participate in STEM programs, including the FIRST Lego League robotics competition in which the Regina Elementary team participated.

The Council’s six regions seek to enhance STEM education and opportunities in Iowa by encouraging and supporting student interest and involvement in STEM disciplines, recruiting highly trained teachers, and shaping policy to help elevate Iowa STEM education to the highest level. The efforts of each region are managed by a “hub” organization or institution; the Southeast Iowa STEM Region hub is a partnership between The University of Iowa and Kirkwood Community College. In October 2012, Rebecca Whitaker was appointed as the regional manager for the southeast region.

“In an effort to launch its support for STEM education,” Whitaker says, “the STEM Advisory Council recently encouraged schools, extension agencies, childcare organizations, and Scout troops, to apply to implement one of 12 scale-up programs such as FIRST LEGO League and a similar robotics competition for high school students, FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC). We had hoped to get about 300 proposals, but when the dust finally cleared, we had received almost 900.”

Successful proposals had to be scalable—that is, capable of being implemented across a range of schools in various settings.

From the 202 proposals submitted from the Southeast Region, Whitaker and her advisory board selected 139 proposals for funding, including the FIRST Tech Challenge (“FIRST” means “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology”).

Scaling up from the Southeast Region project, the STEM Advisory Council awarded support for FTC projects across the state with grants from $4,400 to $5,800.

“Before The College of Engineering got involved with FTC about four years ago, the State of Iowa had two FTC teams,” says Whitaker, who serves as the FTC liaison for the College of Engineering. “Once the College became an ‘Affiliate Partner,’ and with the support from Rockwell Collins, we grew to 134 teams this season. It’s really exciting to see how the program has reached across the state to inspire so many talented and creative Iowa students.”

High school students who participate in FTC are responsible for creating the robots from concept to completion, although adult coaches and peer mentors provide advice and monitor the teams’ progress. While he was still in high school, first-year electrical engineering student Doug Lindner helped launch two FTC teams at Linn-Mar High and then for three years served as a peer mentor for other teams.

“The mentoring experience was great,” says the first-year UI electrical engineering student who was inspired to join FTC by his older brother. “I saw first-hand how great it is to be considered an expert in a particular field and pass along knowledge. It was probably the first time that I was viewed in this way, and it really helped me to appreciate other people who volunteer. It also was a lot of fun.”

With the help of their coaches and community members who serve as mentors, FTC teams not only design and build robots but also hone their teamwork skills, communicate effectively, cope with both failure and success, relate to peers and adults from other communities, and actively participate in community outreach activities.

“It takes a lot to keep a FIRST team going,” says Lindner, who was a high school engineering intern at Rockwell Collins and at the UI is a FIRST Electrical/Computer Engineering Scholarship recipient.

“It requires organization, spirit, leadership, business planning, design, and knowledge of electrical engineering, programming, and fabrication. You can pretty much gain knowledge and experience in anything that interests you.”

FIRST Tech Challenge teams are responsible for buying the necessary parts and software to create their robots. They choose from an array of parts provided by LEGO Education, and they employ designated software to operate the machines. In the design phase they may use CAD software, and to make the robot “perform,” they program the software. Through a series of FTC workshops, “build events,” scrimmages, and qualifiers, teams compete, learn, redesign, and rebuild their robots in an effort to advance from the FTC-Iowa Championship. During competitions, the teams must put their robots through a series of matches which involve simultaneous competition of four teams compete on the same field.

Teams also are interviewed by judges, and the teams that advance from the state-level Championship are invited to compete in the World Championship, which in April 2013 will be held in St. Louis.

Of course, as in “real-world” engineering projects, acquiring the materials to build FTC robots requires “real-world” financial resources. Rockwell Collins and Deere & Company have been generous program sponsors. Rockwell Collins is considered the Global FTC “Official Program Sponsor,” and the company created the Rockwell Collins Innovate Award which recognizes the most innovative and creative robot design solution to specific aspects of the FIRST Tech Challenge.

As a partner in initiatives such as FIRST Tech Challenge and the Governor’s STEM Advisory Council, the College of Engineering is situated at the leading edge of exciting efforts to raise awareness of STEM education, enrich the lives of Iowa students interested in math, science, and technology, and enhance their future impact on the state of Iowa.