Robotics and Game Design Enhances Rock Springs Students’ Interest in STEM Careers

It is hard for Kait Quinton to imagine, but some of the careers her Rock Springs students may be interested in once they graduate have not yet been invented.

Rock Springs Junior High School students Annybella Alcerria-Hill and Lillian Jensen work on their project as part of a University of Wyoming-led program designed to boost students’ math scores. (Kait Quinton Photo)

For the past two years, Quinton has been involved in a unique University of Wyoming program to boost mathematics scores and help students to become interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. The program even interests students in college careers, says the project’s director.

Rock Springs Junior High School is among nearly 25 Wyoming school districts using the Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST) program. The National Science Foundation (NSF) supported the three-year, $1.2 million grant. The project is led by Jacqueline Leonard, a UW College of Education professor and UW Science and Mathematics Teaching Center director.

The “Visualization Basics: uGame-iCompute Project” was designed in 2013 to help teachers engage fifth- through ninth-graders in gaming and robotics to promote interest in STEM programs. Some school districts have participated in the program since year one of the three-year project, and nearly 900 students have participated during that time.

The eight original schools participating were Arapahoe Middle School, Laramie Junior High School, Powell Middle School, University Park Elementary School (Casper), UW Lab School, Wheatland Middle School, Worland Middle School and Wyoming Indian Middle School. Since then, seven and nine school districts, respectively, have joined the program in years two and three, including Rock Springs schools.

“Robotics and game design were used as a hook to enhance children’s interest in STEM and STEM careers. We also were interested in developing computational thinking skills and the processes that we know students need to be successful in computer science and engineering,” Leonard says. “Finally, we wanted children to understand how mathematics, technology and communication are critical to 21st century careers.”

Leonard originally put together a multidisciplinary team from the UW colleges of Education, Engineering and Applied Science, and Arts and Sciences to research a question that has been part of her research agenda for several years: Can gaming and robotics be used to teach computational thinking skills to students in culturally sensitive ways?

“I am so thankful for this program. What a great way to get students prepared for possible careers in their future. Many of the jobs that students will have after they graduate haven’t even been created yet,” says Quinton, who teaches seventh-grade math at Rock Springs Junior High School. “This program helps to enhance students’ critical thinking skills in a way that is fun and interactive. They learn so quickly. It is incredible, because I feel like I teach them the foundation of robotics and game design, and they just take it and run. By the end, they are the ones teaching me.”

She has been involved with the program the last two years, engaging her students last year as an after-school club with Eastside Elementary School fifth- and sixth-graders. Since moving to the junior high this year, Quinton has brought the program over for her seventh- and eighth-graders, again for an after-school program.

“My students love this program. It is a time for them to experiment and be an engineer,” she says. “They love when I give them challenges such as, ‘Make your robot move without wheels.’”

During the multiphase project, UW team members first trained teachers to develop mathematical and scientific lessons that were culturally relevant to their students. Leonard and her supporters worked with the teachers to analyze the impact on students’ overall learning. The research team also worked with participants interested in becoming peer trainers to help extend the project’s reach after the grant period ended.

Program’s Positive Results

“The data reveal that using intact classrooms at the middle school level and elementary students during after-school programs reduced student attrition and ensured broader participation of girls and underrepresented minority students,” Leonard says.

Additionally, UW researchers have observed improved student development of computational thinking skills and problem-solving skills. Leonard says, early in the project, there was a learning curve that teachers and students had to overcome to learn the programming and software.

“Overall, students learned how to make their own games, which involved formulating problems, abstraction, use of algorithms, logical thinking, analyzing and debugging, and generalizing and transfer of knowledge,” Leonard says. “They also learned to use 21st century skills as they worked in teams to solve problems and created products for self-enjoyment and competition.”

Quinton says the program has taught her students problem-solving skills, plus to become more creative.

“When we were creating a Frogger video game, I let my students set up any design that they wanted,” she says. “Instead of just your typical Frogger game, students came up with ideas such as a ‘Wizard of Oz’ theme where it was a Dorothy frog that had to cross the yellow brick road and avoid flying monkeys. It was so cute and creative.”

Robotics teams compete at local competitions, and gaming teams have taken field trips to the National Center for Atmospheric Research-Wyoming Supercomputing Center in Cheyenne. Teachers accepted into the program enrolled in continuing education courses, led after-school programs, and further developed instructional skills on how to incorporate cultural uniqueness into fun science and technology projects.

The NSF-sponsored grant has ended this semester, but Leonard says her research team has actually been granted a “no-cost extension,” meaning that the project will end during September 2017. Planning for the next phase of the program is underway, she adds.

“We intend to go to more school districts and work with both elementary and middle school students,” Leonard says. “It has been a pleasure working with teachers and students in Wyoming. The excitement and energy observed in the classrooms and after-school clubs were infectious. The students loved the program and learned a great deal.”


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