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Robotics helps rural Appalachia students make career connections

Published November 27, 2019
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By Sam Warwick, Robotics Adviser and Teacher, Heritage High School, Maryville, TN
Sam.Warwick@blountk12.org

Editor’s Note: Pitsco Teacher Advisory Group (TAG) member Sam Warwick teaches technology and engineering at Heritage High School in Maryville, Tennessee. As the school’s lead adviser for SkillsUSA®, he has seen his teams to numerous awards. He enjoys seeing his students overcome their fear of failure and find success after learning critical 21st-century skills.

Anyone associated with the educational community for any length of time can tell you that it seems every year there is a new buzzword or hot educational theory that is going to revolutionize the way students learn and teachers teach. However, like the majestic dodo bird, most are destined for extinction due to their inability to evolve in a rapidly changing environment or meet the educational needs of the students. In recent years, a project-based, hands-on teaching theory called STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), has been introduced as a way to incorporate many disciplines into one seamless and harmonious curriculum. Unlike the dodo, it has not faded into extinction but has gained popularity and expanded to include other variations such as STEAM, with the A standing for art, or STREAM with the R standing for robotics, as a way to introduce students to new complex ideas, theories, and skills required for career success in the 21st century.

In my experience, one of the best ways to introduce students to STEM is through the use of robotics in the classroom. Living in rural Appalachia, most of my students do not come from a background historically exposed to high-tech, high-wage fields. However, through the use of robotics in the classroom, many are now on the path to be first-generation college graduates and, in some cases, even first-generation high school graduates. These students who would not, could not have dreamed of entering a STEM-related career just a few short years ago have been able to use their experiences in the classroom to gain confidence and knowledge that would not have previously been available to them.

Competitive events such as the SkillsUSA: Urban Search & Rescue (USAR) competition and the TETRIX® product line have allowed me to incrementally introduce robotics theories; complex ideas from math, science, engineering, and programming; as well as leadership, teamwork, and problem-solving skills. When students can touch, feel, and see results, they develop a better understanding of why they need to know something and how to apply the knowledge. My robotics students have been very successful at national competitive events and have found they can succeed in the associated career fields. In fact, so far, all of my students who have been involved with our USAR team over the years have gone on to have success in their field of study. Two have graduated with degrees in mechanical engineering, one will graduate in December with a degree in engineering, one is on path to graduate with an engineering degree, and one recently graduated as our high school valedictorian and as a Tennessee presidential scholar and has begun working toward a degree in civil engineering.

Hands-on education, through the use of STEM in the classroom, not only reinforces the core educational ideas presented through traditional math and science classes but also develops soft skills such as teamwork, independent thinking, confidence, and problem-solving, which are not normally experienced in a traditional classroom setting. A combination of traditional theory-based education and the use of hands-on learning, such as robotics, allows students from a region of the country historically impoverished and lacking high-tech opportunities to write a new history for themselves and others. They are an example of what can be achieved when opportunity meets dedication. While not all of my students will enter a STEM-related field, the use of robotics in the classroom exposes them all to the skills needed to maximize their success in the 21st-century workplace.

“They forget it’s school. They really do. I had roughly 30 percent participation at the beginning of the school year. Now, I am actually averaging somewhere around 80 percent participation. It is a very high number.”

– Alvin Wiggins, STEM lab facilitator, Dothan City Schools, Dothan, Alabama

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