EduTECH 2016: STEM and girls - Education Matters Magazine
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EduTECH 2016: STEM and girls

After 20 years working in the IT industry as a consultant across many projects from design, development and implementation of large systems, and as a program and process manager, Susan Bowler decided to study teaching and naturally gravitated towards a specialisation in technology, along with maths and science.

Susan has a very strong interest in promoting STEM and has been involved with robotics for the past nine years as a teacher and mentor of teams for her after school club RoboSquad United. The teams from RoboSquad United have won 24 competitions including four international championships. Susan integrates robotics in the classroom, using it as a platform to teach engineering, programming, technology, arts, science and maths. Susan is also a member of three robotics organising committees, Robotics Tasmania, RoboCup Junior Australia and International RoboCup Junior.

Susan is a strong advocate of Australia’s public school system and her passion is to build girls’ interest in STEM and as such currently teaches at Tasmania’s all-girls Ogilvie High School. She spoke with Education Matters magazine’s Kathryn Edwards about robotics in the classroom, STEM and her presentation at this year’s EduTECH conference.

How do you think women’s participation in STEM can be increased through the school level?

I’ve taken many teams to robotics competitions, and to the international level, and we’ve won four times. Now, those teams have been mixed, boys and girls, because the club would pull students from other schools, but what I’ve seen in all girls’ schools is the girls are not afraid to try things when the boys aren’t there, whereas when they started mixing with the boys, they were a little bit more subdued at first. I think if you really want to get girls started in STEM, you’ve got to make it creative, you have to make it very open-ended, and you have to put it in a context where they can see the benefit of it, which is why I’m going to talk about project-based learning at EduTECH because robotics is exactly that.

How did your teaching of robotics evolve?

When I was doing my post-graduate degree in Teaching, they told me that I should be teaching maths and science. Then I discovered they had an IT stream so I thought, “Oh well, I’ll do three streams; that gives me more employability at the other end.” But once I actually started the class, the professor basically said, “You know more than what you’re going to learn in this class”, and I said, “Yeah, but I’m really interested in these little yellow robots you have running around. While I’m here, can you at least show me them?”

So I looked at the robots and discovered we had a competition in Tasmania, so I volunteered for that, and then when I started at Ogilvie, I discovered we had a whole closet of unused robots, so I took those into a class that I was teaching of how things worked, and it was a lower level class sort of centred around engineering at a simple level, and the girls just took to them like crazy, they really, really enjoyed them. I thought, “All right, they’re actually going to learn something” and I taught them how to do some pretty basic moves and use the sensors with the robots, and then thought about the competition that was coming up.

They have a dance category – that’s very creative – and the girls get to choose their music, they get to choose what the robot’s going to do, they get to dress the robots up, and so it really does attract quite a few girls. We started entering them and actually did all right. Then it just started growing, and because we did all right, we got the newer version of the robots, and because I had a girls’ team, we applied for a Google grant in 2009, and got fully funded to go to Austria by Google. We did all right in one of the divisions, not so well in the others, but we returned in 2010 and 2011 and took it out twice in a row; we were the international champions!

Then we did it again in 2013 and it was great fun, you know, the girls and the boys love it, because they love the travel, but it’s hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours of work on their part and you just wouldn’t know it. They’re happy doing it, they’re working collaboratively, they are learning, they’re having fun, they are talking, and being silly in many cases! So it’s a lot of after school and weekend work, and through school holidays too, but joyful, very, very joyful.

Is robotics strictly an extracurricular activity for those excelling at mathematics or is it integrated into lessons at the school?

At our school, we are trying to integrate it into lessons. We also have a science and engineering club and we’ve been playing around with some new robots; we haven’t started that up yet this year because this is only our second week of school. It’s open to anybody and it can be if they’re good in science or if they’re good at maths or if they’re good in audiovisual, because there’s programming involved. What they need is a very open mind and to be logical; it’s really what it’s all about. It develops analytical thinking and critical thinking.

How are you trying to integrate robotics in the classroom?

In science, there are quite a few areas that you can use it, you can use it for data logging, you can use it for physics, and you can use it for chemistry. You don’t have to build really elaborate robots, they’re very simple, but you use the sensors quite a bit. So for example you could use a light sensor to measure the density of a solution just by its transparency then compare that to the weight, and things like that, or whether something fully precipitates or doesn’t.

In physics, you can use it to demonstrate velocity and acceleration because you can, again, use the light sensors. The data logging can be used to measure temperature. There are all kinds of sensors that you can use. You can explain things like balance by using the gyroscope in the robots. You can explain compass and maths by using the compass sensor and programming it to make right angles or a 90o turn of a 180 o, and it’s something that takes the pencil off the paper and gets kids thinking about it.

In science, you could use it to collect samples too and if you were worried about sterile things you could send a robot in. The programming essentially helps you with algebra because it uses variables in a lot of the programming, but that’s getting pretty advanced at that point.
So right now, what we’re doing is starting to design where we might use the robots. But before we do that, we need to get some new robots because ours are rather worn out; they’re quite old now. So I’m actively working on where to put them in the curriculum so I can get some good robots to get the club started up again and current.

Is there a need for professional development of STEM teachers to be improved?

Yes, I think there is. I believe that it would not be a bad idea to have teachers work with universities and industry to develop some very specific post-graduate programs for working teachers, and make it part of the undergraduate programs. I think IT is always seen as an aside.

Your presentation at this year’s EduTECH will be about project-based learning. Can you elaborate a little bit about that?

What I’m going to talk about is how you could use robots for project-based learning, both within say a classroom for maths or science, like what we’ve just talked about, or as a standalone project. I’m going to bring an awful lot of examples of where I’ve seen it done.

You’ve got the US-based Buck Institute of Education, who seem to be the leaders on project-based learning, and I’ve been going through their site and thought, “Yep, this is a robotics project; yes, this could be an IT project” because it’s following whether you have big questions or you have a big goal. For one of my competitions, it was to have 14 robots all work together without running into each other and do a performance of the tea party in Alice and Wonderland. And I had around 10 team members working together in two different countries, because we had two US team members and they were working from the US, and we pulled it all together.

And that takes the basics of PBL – you’ve got to be thinking critically, you have to be collaborating, and the communication skills have to be top-notch. Those are not things that are necessarily taught in a standard classroom, probably more so here in Australia from what I’ve seen in the US, or what my experience was. But robotics is just the perfect tip for it.

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