Daniel Brillhardt has been using Lego's RoboLab in his fourth grade school classrooms for six or seven years, finding the hands-on tool is a great a leveler as well as a learning tool. Building robots is equally challenging for Talented and Gifted (TAG) students who attend class with students who have learning disabilities.
"I had a kid with a severe reading disability, we showed him how to program robots and he could express his creativity that way. He ended up being the star of the class, including the TAG students," says Brillhardt, who teaches at Gattis Elementary in Austin, TX.
Now, Brillhardt is waiting to hand his students the new version of Mindstorm, NXT, which debuts August 1. As one of the 100 members of the Mindstorms Developer Program, he's had a chance to help shape the toy and learn how to use it.
He feels the newer version will create excitement and interest in science and math, which set the stage for students to go into technical fields. "NXT is simpler, it's much more drag and drop. In the past kids had to wire things together, which was time consuming and could be quite frustrating," Brillhardt says.
His efforts coincide with a major thrust by technology companies to interest children of all ages in technology. As globalization makes it possible for the hundreds of thousands of Chinese and Indian engineers to compete with their U.S. counterparts, companies are becoming more active in their efforts to keep a steady flow of technically-savvy students coming through the educational pipeline.
These firms have also taken the hands-on approach, ranging from grade schools to the collegiate level (see sidebar, page 50). But it's primarily at the elementary levels where companies like Avnet are establishing challenges and taking an active role in running them. "Five years ago, we were just giving money," says Teri Radosevich, director of community relations at the Phoenix-based distributor.
The Avnet Science and Technology Fair is an extra-curricular activity for local fifth through eighth grade students.
Avnet's far from alone in this endeavor. Most high-tech companies and the associations that work with them donate time and money to create excitement around math and science, hoping to help students build the foundation needed to enter engineering and other technical fields.
"If they aren't interested in fifth through eighth grade, it's usually too late to go into engineering in college," Radosevich says.
There are solid signs that the programs are reaching students.
The World Robot Olympiad began in 2004 and had nearly 4,000 teams last year. Observers note that these hands-on projects also help attract women and minorities.
The efforts by these companies coincide with longstanding programs run by societies such as the IEEE and ASME, which sponsor programs including National Engineering Week. Other groups like Junior Engineering Technical Society are evenmore focused, existing largely to promote engineering and technology in schools.
Does it work?
But while hands-on projects do seem to boost interest and make it possible for students to enter engineering at the university level, there's no proof that they serve that long-term goal. Engineering enrollment levels haven't changed significantly over the last decade.
"There are a lot of factors that determine what major someone takes in college," says Ray Almgren, vice president of product strategy and academic relations at National Instruments, a Lego Mindstorms partner based in Austin.
Proponents largely agree that without corporate help, it will be difficult for strapped elementary school faculties to engender the understanding and inherent curiosity future engineers will need.
Though there's no guarantee, corporate donations and volunteerism have soared in recent years. One of the largest programs for high school students is the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) program developed by Segway creator Dean Kamen. More than 1,100 teams with more than 30,000 students competed in the robotic construction program. Three-hundred and forty-three teams and 8,500 students got to the finals in Atlanta, marking a significant increase over the 28 teams in the 1992 finals.
Sponsors note they get plenty of feedback showing that the projects have an impact from students, and on the volunteers. "It's very gratifying to have a team come up and say they want to have their picture taken with Autodesk," says Buzz Kross, vice president of manufacturing solutions at Autodesk Inc. of Tualatin, OR. The tools' provider has been a leading sponsor of FIRST for several years, donating the development tools students use to create their robots.
While the focus is on providing a fun and exciting program for youth, most of the adults who opt to donate their time find the challenges equally rewarding. "Most of the judges asked if they could do it again next year," Radosevich says.