ERC Robotics Outreach Program to Underrepresented Students Continues to Flourish
Native American students in Minnesota have been participating in robotics courses thanks to the NSF-funded Engineering Research Center (ERC) for Compact and Efficient Fluid Power (CCEFP). The University of Minnesota, the lead institution of the CCEFP, has sponsored the education outreach program, called "Shooting for the Stars," which enabled students to discover robotics as both an after-school activity and as an elective class in grades 2-12 at two schools, Albrook School and the Ojibwe School. In 2012, with CCEFP sponsorship, a secondary robotics program was launched at a neighboring facility, Cloquet Middle School.
Robotics is an effective channel for introducing children to basic principles of engineering and related disciplines and exposing students to the types of learning necessary for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) careers. The program provides students with fun, engaging activities in which they can better understand physics concepts as well as develop mathematical thinking, problem solving, and programming skills. Team building is also vital to the process as students participate in hands-on construction engineering and a robotics competition. Currently, over 60 students per year participate in day and after-school program activities.
The CCEFP's Robotics Program is part of a larger set of initiatives in northern Minnesota known as gidaa (gidakiimanaaniwigamig, "our earth lodge" in the Anishinaabe language) and designed to engage area Native American students in active study as they work toward high school graduation and prepare for post-secondary education in STEM areas. Other K-12 gidaa activities sponsored by the ERC include science fairs and summer camps. This collection of educational initiatives supports CCEFP's goal of developing STEM interests in students of all ages.
CCEFP contributes to the programmatic, course content, and financial support of projects under the gidaa umbrella. Gidaa Robotics teachers have drawn on lessons learned through earlier gidaa experiences and introduced K-12 robotics day and after-school activities into their local schools using Lego Wedo-Webots and Lego Mindstorms robots and associated curricula. The Albrook School, a key CCEFP partner, is reorganizing to find additional ways to motivate students towards STEM fields. The school is piloting a robotics class for inclusion in the school's curriculum and is working with the Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College on an agreement that will enable students to earn college course credit for completion of Albrook's robotics course. In complementary efforts, the Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College continues offering its robotics course and is creating a pre-engineering program.