Upland Junior High School students cheered in excitement Saturday, May 4 as their robot scored, advancing their team to the next round in the USC Viterbi sponsored Botball tournament for middle school students.
Over two months of intensive training, the Upland students went from vaguely interested in robots and the math and science behind them to developing a keen interest in robotics and other science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)-related subjects.
On this day, their team would finish fourth out of 48 teams. Although they didn’t take home the grand prize, team members may have learned something more important, said Upland mentors Jason Craig and Deyon Shearer.
“Going through this process brings more meaning to the math and science they’re taking in school,” said Craig, STEM teacher at Upland Junior High. “They can see an outcome. There’s a reason to learn it.”
Upland competed in the largest regional Botball tournament in the world, organized by Ross Mead, a USC Viterbi Ph.D. candidate in computer science. Two months earlier, Mead introduced Upland and other students to the computer programming material at a two-day training session at USC. During the session, the 10-student Upland team worked with their mentors to learn robot design and computer programming.
In the Shrine Expo Hall this past Saturday, Upland prepared their robot for the first round of competition. The team’s robot earned the seventh-highest number of points in that round by completing obstacle course tasks such as capturing objects or knocking them down. Upland continued to the double elimination round in which their robot won five head-to-head competitions by autonomously navigating the course, collecting and scoring game objects better than competitors.
An NSF grant funded Upland and another 27 Botball teams to study different mentorship styles and their impact on student self-confidence in STEM. USC and Southern University Illinois-Edwardsville received the funds.
USC’s Mead hopes the grant will help educators understand the most effective ways to foster a deeper appreciation of STEM and increase student self-confidence. Nothing less than the nation’s economic future and continued ability to innovate are at stake, some experts believe.
The United States suffers from a lack of young students excited about entering STEM fields. Only 4.5 percent of American students receive university degrees in engineering, versus 14 percent in Europe and 21 percent in Asia, according to a recent Forbes editorial by Andrew Viterbi, namesake of USC Viterbi.
Student belief in their scientific abilities is a powerful indicator of whether or not they will enter into STEM-related fields. It is an even more accurate predictor than past achievement, according to experts.
“It’s about inspiring kids to do something that goes beyond what they think they are capable of doing,” Mead said.
Mead understands the importance of a strong mentor as well as anyone. In a small high school in Illinois, Mead excelled in math and science, yet didn’t see these skills leading to a desirable career path. A professor at a nearby university encouraged Mead to start a robotics team at his school to compete in the local university robotics tournament.
Under Mead’s direction, the team won the competition two years in a row, beating dozens of high school and college teams. Thirteen years later, Mead still maintains his relationship, both personal and professional, with his former mentor, Jerry Weinberg of Southern University Illinois-Edwardsville.
Mead credits the encouragement he received from his mentor for his future engineering success. He wants other young students to benefit from similar relationships.
Maja Matarić, Mead’s Ph.D. advisor and renowned robotics expert, shares Mead’s belief in the power of mentoring in encouraging students to enter STEM-related fields.
“Role modeling, mentoring and championing are critical for recruiting and retaining students in fields that are not typical, popularized, or stereotyped career choices,” Matarić said.
Upland students already feel more confident in their abilities. When they began building their robot, they only wanted to score in the competition. When they saw their robot performing well on Saturday, they said they hoped to place first, second, or third.
Although they fell just short of their goal, they said they felt proud of their performance and looked forward to coming back next year.
“To watch the robot our team created run and work, it feels awesome,” said 12-year-old Upland student Saqlian Naqvi.