Do Schools Need a Robotics Program?

Robots earned their place in academia thanks to people like Nils Nilsson. By today’s standards, Nilsson’s early work — a top-heavy robot called “SHAKEY” — is fairly primitive. Nilsson, who passed away in April 2019, nevertheless helped cement the idea that robotics will always inspire widespread interest and will always have a place in the world’s classrooms.

There are multiple reasons why schools, students and society all benefit when schools invest in robotics programs. Plus, getting such a program off the ground isn’t as difficult as it might sound.

Why Robotics and Why Now?

Why now? Because robotics and artificial intelligence have a huge role to play in humanity’s future. The number of tasks and even whole careers which are ripe for automation is only growing larger. It’s not the end of work as we know it, but as reported by Oxford Economics, the worldwide manufacturing sector all by itself could shed as much as 8.5% of its workforce by 2030.

The same report says the next decade could see the EU lose almost 2 million jobs to automation. It names rural areas in the UK as highly vulnerable thanks to the concentration of manufacturing concerns. London, meanwhile, is not as vulnerable.

What this means is that the world needs lots of new students who are interested in robotics and prepared to design, program and maintain these robotic implements as they come online.

The Benefits of Learning About Robotics

The primary reason for doubling-down on robotics instruction in the classroom is a practical one: The world needs the talent.

By 2030, according to McKinsey, the demand for many physical and even some basic cognitive tasks in the workforce will decline by around 15%. At the same time, competition among companies for highly skilled and technically proficient employees will rise. Moreover, some 20% of companies indicated, when asked, that their decision-makers don’t understand robotics, AI or automation well enough to adopt such systems and achieve a competitive edge.

There’s no such thing as a future-proof job, but it’s clear that all types of companies and industries will require individuals with strong coding and robotics backgrounds. This is a moment of opportunity for schools to ensure their graduates remain competitive in the workforce.

Here are some equally powerful reasons to add robotics programs to the world’s classrooms:

  • Robotics inspires creative problem-solving: Studying robotics is an activity that combines free-play and experimentation with the rigorous process of scientific trial and error. While learning about robotics, kids and older students get to see the direct impact of cause-and-effect in an activity that combines digital mastery with physical output.
  • Robotics lessons are highly engaging: The combination of digital, electrical and mechanical learning opportunities is highly stimulating and keeps students engaged with their studies. Experimenting with robotics is also a highly student-driven exercise and one that provides “active learning,” which conveys (and helps students retain) much more information than lectures and memorization.
  • Robotics makes students more code-aware: Robotics are soon to be everywhere and computers are already ubiquitous. Studying robotics early in their educational careers helps students become “code-aware,” which is another way of saying it helps them better understand the modern world and how it functions. Steve Jobs was a proponent of teaching coding to every student for this reason.
  • Robotics cement fundamental math and science concepts: You can’t have robotics without mathematics, physics and maybe even a touch of physical chemistry knowledge to understand how the elements can influence the performance of electronics, including robots that must perform in the intense cold of outer space.

Robotics presents students with a compelling problem (make this robot do “X”) that requires them to draw on each of these skills and fundamental knowledge areas. They’re learning lifelong concepts without being overly aware that they’re learning at all.

There are lots of other benefits, many of which play into the “soft skills” that employers increasingly prioritize during hiring today. Robotics programs teach the value of maintaining one’s perseverance in the face of difficulty. It also teaches students to work in harmony with one another as part of a team and how to contribute to projects which require multiple iterations over time.

With the benefits understood, it’s time to turn our attention to how schools can successfully incorporate robotics programs into their curriculum.

Tips for Incorporating Robotics Programs

Many school districts added robotics programs to their curriculums gradually using pilot programs. This cultivates interest and buy-in and helps ensure the program operates as intended when launch day arrives.

One school district tasked three of their school directors with designing robotics courses. After three years, the program achieved “total participation,” including each of the district’s elementary schools. Each one now has what they call a “makerspace,” which are areas that encourage the free-exploration and trial-and-error we touted the benefits of earlier.

Students in every year now experience progressively more challenging robotics and coding courses. Each participating school also has a related resources centre for further study.

There are plenty of opportunities for school districts with more modest budgets, too. A small initiative could attract gifts, grants or additional funding if it’s done well. School districts can start with just one robotics club and even just one robot for students to work on. Doing this will help gauge interest and help it spread. As the program develops, it can serve as a shakedown run for even more ambitious robotics programs.

Children are our future, and so are robots. The world needs more talented people in this field — and it also needs more people who respect and understand how technology functions. Getting more serious about teaching robotics and coding principles will help inspire them.

Megan Ray Nichols

Megan Ray Nichols is a freelance STEM writer and blogger. She's the editor of Schooled By Science and regularly contributes to sites like The Naked Scientists and Inhabitat. Keep up with Megan by following her on Twitter and subscribing to her blog.
Megan Ray Nichols

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