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Grants to study robotics as teaching tool in schools

By Andy Fell on September 24, 2012 in

RoboPlay: High Tech K-12 Fun

Two new grants totaling $1.25 million awarded to the University of California, Davis, by the National Science Foundation will support studies of the impact of robotics in teaching science, technology, engineering and math from elementary to high school.

Both projects are led by Harry Cheng, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and director of the UC Davis K-14 Outreach Center for Computing and STEM Education.

"Robotics involves a variety of math, information technology, and engineering concepts," Cheng said. "Introducing computing and robotics into the math and science curriculum helps make abstract ideas concrete and allows students to apply mathematical concepts to real world problems."

The C-STEM Center also will hold a Fall Robotics Academy for school teachers on the weekend on Oct. 13-14. The class will train teachers to use robots and computing in their classrooms.

"These recent NSF awards to the UC Davis C-STEM Center are a tremendous validation of the incredible work being done by Harry Cheng and his colleagues," said Enrique Lavernia, dean of the College of Engineering. "It's critical that we develop creative and innovative approaches to K-12 instruction, to assure the successful realization of every student's potential. Professor Cheng has confronted the challenge of math engagement with middle school and high school students with an innovative approach using the latest in computing and robotics technology."

The larger grant, from NSF's National Robotics Initiative, provides $950,000 over three years to study how the use of robotics programs in schools can change kids' attitudes to science, technology, engineering and math subjects. Co-investigators on the grant are Professor Jean Vandergheynst, associate dean for undergraduate studies in the College of Engineering and co-director of the C-STEM center; and Tobin White, associate professor in the UC Davis School of Education.

The project will recruit teachers from Sacramento area schools from grades six and up and provide them with robots, teaching resources and training in how to integrate computing and robotics in their teaching with engaging, fun activities for real-world problem solving.

Their students will be able to enter the RoboPlay Competitions run by the C-STEM Center. RoboPlay is designed to let K-12 students use robots while exploring their creativity in writing, art, music, choreography, design, and filmmaking and at the same time seamlessly learn and apply computing and STEM concepts to solve practical problems.

A second recent grant, of $300,000 over two years from the NSF's Cyberlearning: Transforming Education program, will fund a study of how robots and handheld computers can be used specifically in teaching algebra. That study will involve two schools in Washington Unified School District in West Sacramento.

The UC Davis robotics curriculum helps students excel, Cheng said — especially students who do not typically do well in middle-school math and related subjects.

Together with another grant received in June 2011, the center has now received a total of three NSF grants totaling almost $1.8 million in the past 18 months to support its educational outreach work.

In addition to the Fall Academy, the center also organizes an annual two-week Summer Institute for teachers and a weekend Winter Academy in January. The marquee event is the annual UC Davis C-STEM Day, held this year in May, which combines a conference and workshop on computing and STEM education with robotics competitions for students.

Media contact(s)

Andy Fell, Research news (emphasis: biological and physical sciences, and engineering), 530-752-4533,

Harry Cheng, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, 530-752-5020,

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