Austin, TX-Despite growing demand for technical skills, the number of college students earning engineering degrees in this country has dropped by 15% since the mid-1980s. But that trend may soon reverse itself, thanks to the efforts of teachers like Kathleen Crowe who are committed to bringing technology into the classroom.
Instead of spending her summer working on a suntan, Crowe-a fifth-grade teacher at Jack C. Murchison Elementary School (Pflugerville, TX)--just completed an eight-day, technology training session at the UT-Austin College of Engineering. This year, some 40 teachers of grades K-12 will participate in the workshop, which is taught by UTA engineering faculty and funded by National Instruments (Austin, TX). www.ni.com
During the two-week course, teachers learn how to build and program robots using LEGO building blocks, sensors and components, and software. These technologies make up ROBOLAB, a robotics set specially designed for students by National Instruments, LEGO Dacta, and Tufts University. www.ceeo.tufts.edu/graphics/robolab.html
The Composter shown here is one of the ten environment-friendly robots built by fifth-grade students in Kathleen Crowe's classroom at Jack C. Murchison Elementary School in Pflugerville, TX.
What teachers learn here will ultimately help shape their class curriculum, aided by more than 100 National Instruments engineers who will volunteer their time in the classroom. "Everything I learn here totally impacts how I teach," says Crowe, who initially learned about the program through a flyer in her mailbox. "I was so excited about the opportunity to expose my kids to robotics, and of course the fact that it offered free materials for teachers was a plus."
Crowe, who has participated in previous workshops at UTA, first introduced robotics into her classroom two years ago. This year's class built ten robots as part of an entire curriculum she developed on the environment. Students first researched a specific environmental issue, then designed a robotic device to solve a related problem, programmed it to carry out dedicated tasks, and created a web page describing their invention. www1.webramp.net/crowesclassroom/roboticshomepage.htm
The crew of eco-friendly robots includes the Super Trash Can, which uses a light sensor to detect when trash is thrown into the can and sounds an alarm to remind the person to use a recycling bin instead. Similarly, the H2O Saver uses sensors to collect and distribute rainwater.
"What they've done here isn't fluff," says Crowe. "My students aren't just learning about robotics, but getting a better understanding of how to apply technology to solve real-world problems."
That sounds exactly like what real engineers do every day.