Robotics team shines in global competition

Office of Communications & Marketing | Northeastern State University
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. -- At first glance, it may seem out of place. Maybe even a little crazy. But with only a short preparation period, the robotics team of Northeastern State University Edubots received much attention and praise during a recent global competition.
 
During its April 15-21 trip to the 2013 VEX Robotics College Challenge World Championship in Anaheim, Calif., the NSU College of Education team of future teachers competed against future scientists and engineers. They finished 44th in the 52-team field and earned the Judges' Trophy.
 
"We are so proud to see this team pull together and do something that, to our knowledge, no College of Education has done," said Barbara Fuller, who served as faculty adviser to the team with Dr. Renee Cambiano. "Robotics can be applied to anything. It fosters critical thinking, problem solving, teamwork and leadership. These experiences will allow these students to add a layer of teaching to their classrooms and affect the lives of thousands of children."
 
The team included Tandy Morris of Westville, Savanna Atchison of Afton, Megan Bloom of Cushing and Laura Myers of Wilburton.
 
NSU began its Robotics in Education program in November 2012. Classes started in January, and on Feb. 2 the robotics team "Edubots" qualified for nationals during the VEX Robotic Regional held at Sequoyah High School and hosted by the Cherokee Nation.
 
"We didn't know to be afraid," said Morris, a junior majoring in special education. "We believe it is important to show that teachers are making an effort to learn technology."
 
At the world championship, NSU Edubots was the only qualifier from a college of education, the only all-female team and its roster of four was among the smallest. Other teams represented science and engineering colleges and programs, and most numbered between 8-20 members.
 
"It was fun to see the reactions of everyone," Morris said. "The other competitors and the judges would ask where the rest of our team was."
 
Other institutions participating included the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Purdue, Michigan State and the New York Institute of Technology. Teams from Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Spain, Malaysia and the United Kingdom also competed.
 
Teams raced to have their robots place bean bags in a "goal." Among the collegiate contests, the robots started on automated programs before being manipulated by controllers. A bot's role is to either score or block an opponent from scoring. The Edubots team used VEX Robotics kits.
 
"They don't come with instructions," said Atchison, a junior and early childhood education major. "But soon you realize you don't have any boundaries. You can take the pieces and put them together in a design you create yourself."
 
Fuller's belief in the educational value of robotics was demonstrated during the competition. Participants were eager to share information and learn from the successes and mistakes of others.
 
"A team's victory counted more if the final score was close," said Myers, a junior majoring in elementary education. "I've never seen a competition that was more collaborative. A winning team might score bean bags for their opponents. We learned so much and it was fun to be the underdogs. Everyone wanted to know what we were doing and why we were so passionate about this."
 
Though team members found fun in competing, their long-term objective is to use robotics as teachers.
 
The College of Education curriculum at NSU permits ample opportunity for teacher candidates to apply robotics to the education of students. As part of their coursework, the robotics students visit area schools to see the use of robot technology in classrooms, or study how it can be implemented.
 
"It is really amazing to see what children can do without constraints," Myers said. "It is important that we realize that learning isn't just about getting the right answer. It is also about working your way there, even if you make 500 mistakes."
 
Though she initially found it intimidating, Atchison quickly found enthusiasm for the challenge.
 
"I saw a robot and wondered whether it came in a kit," she said. "There were pieces everywhere. But I think it appealed to me because, within the teaching world, it is always good to be one step ahead and know what is coming. After I graduate, I want to be able to integrate robotics into my classroom because I know my students will find it interesting."
 
Bloom, a junior majoring in science education, said technology has always been an indispensable component of education.
 
"I think technology is even more applicable today," she said. "Today the students have computers and video games at home. They are growing up with technology and are better than most adults at using it. It is important for teachers to get in front of technology and teach with these tools."
 
Cambiano echoed the sentiments of team members when she praised the "perfect storm" of people who helped create the College of Education robotics program.
 
Dr. Deborah Landry, dean of the College of Education, provided impetus for the program after seeing the application of robotics in education during a visit to Taiwan. Dr. Vanessa Anton, assistant dean of the College of Education, and her husband Terry, enlisted sponsorship and bought equipment for the class. Dr. Calvin Cole, robotics instructor at Sequoyah, mentored NSU administrators, advisers and students, and allows the Edubots team to practice at SHS.
 
"The Cherokee Nation bought two robots for us, assists us through Dr. Cole and has a building dedicated to robotics at Sequoyah High School," Cambiano said. "We have the full support of the NSU College of Education and its administration. It is an incredible feeling to have people saying you can do it – you can compete against MIT and engineering students." 
 
Atchison called the competition "one of the best things I've ever done" and said one need not be a science major to learn about and utilize robotics.
 
"It is not as scary as it seems," she said. "I'm not an engineer or a math major. It may seem daunting, but once you get started it becomes much easier. I learned skills which will help me be a better teacher all around, and I encourage others to get into robotics."
 
For more information about robotics in education at NSU, contact Fuller at 918-444-3767 or Cambiano at 918-444-3741.

Published: 5/14/2013 10:16:16 AM

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