UCD program brings robots – and math – into Sacramento schools

Angel Baez and Andrew Robbins each pressed a button on their palm-size robots and bumped them together to sync them. Baez then held his cylindrical robot like a steering wheel, shooting Robbins’ across the table.

The two California Middle School students had fun Thursday familiarizing themselves with the new robots. But what seemed like play also served as the foundation for lifelong analytical thinking, including the basics of algebra concepts the boys must understand to graduate from high school.

UC Davis professor Harry Cheng wanted to bring computer robotics – once relegated to after-school programs and advanced classes – to schools with at-risk students to spark their curiosity and improve their grades. He opened the Outreach Center for Computing and STEM Education at UC Davis in 2010 with the specific goal of expanding access to science and math-related fields to minority, low-income and female students, though the curriculum is available to all schools.

“I think – one thing for sure – our students are more engaged,” he said. “Students are interested, and that’s important. If we can get students engaged, that’s a hope.”

Cheng’s center so far has trained more than 100 K-14 teachers in basic computer programming and robotic skills. Among them is Maria Aguilar, who teaches “Introduction to Computer Robotics” at California Middle School in Sacramento.

Students in Aguilar’s fifth-period class run the gamut of ability – from special education to advanced students. Each student listened intently Thursday as Aguilar demonstrated the basics of computer programming and talked about math concepts such as the radius of a circle and angles.

The payoff: using the information to operate the robots.

“They are so interested,” she said. “It’s helping them to learn analytical thinking.”

Seventh-grader Baez decided to enroll in the elective class after taking a summer robotics course.

“It’s a challenge. It’s something new I can do in the future,” said Baez, who aspires to be a game programmer.

Seventh-grader Chris Gomez signed up for the elective class hoping it would help him learn to design and build robots and other electronics in the future. The pre-algebra student says the class is helping “make math easier” for him.

University research, funded in part by the National Science Foundation and feedback from K-14 teachers, helped to shape the curriculum that the UCD program teaches to educators. The classes include computer programming and robotics, one that integrates computing with high school math and another that merges robotics and film production.

UCD-shaped courses are now being taught at more than 60 schools across the state, including 37 in the greater Sacramento region. Demand is so high that Cheng is considering a program that would turn teachers into trainers that could start as early as next summer. He also plans to add curriculum for students in geometry and algebra II.

Starting the program wasn’t as simple as developing curriculum to train teachers. UC Davis researchers wanted to build a robot that would be more practical for everyday classrooms than the ones with hundreds of parts that typically have been used. The first version of the linkbot – Barobo – was designed five years ago and patented by the university. The robot is called a linkbot, because it is a modular robot that can be linked with other robots to build bigger robots that can accomplish complicated tasks and solve advanced problems.

The Outreach Center, which is self-sustaining, charges school districts $200 to train each teacher and an additional $300 for software for the program, depending on curriculum, Cheng said. The linkbots cost $189 each, or $149 if a school is working with the Outreach Center. Schools who can’t afford the linkbots can run computer simulations instead, Cheng said.

Thirty of the teachers have fellowships through the National Science Foundation. The fellowship pays for teacher training, textbooks and linkbots for the classroom. The fellows helped build the curriculum and meet monthly to share lesson plans and strategies. California Middle School’s Aguilar and Luther Burbank High School teacher Clay Dagler are two of the fellows. Both schools have a high number of low-income students – 72 percent at California Middle School and 100 percent at Luther Burbank.

It’s hard to know if the UC Davis program is working because data have been collected for only two years. That’s too small of a sample to be significant, Cheng said. Anecdotal evidence, including feedback from teachers and students, has been positive, he said.

Dagler’s robotics class is designed to help the freshmen perform better in algebra class, held later in the day. Dagler says the curriculum – aligned to the new Common Core State Standards – has students engaging in deeper thinking and becoming more persistent about problem solving. “I believe it’s a good thing that will help them in other classes,” he said.

Dagler is in his second year of teaching the class at Burbank. He said students scored higher and became more engaged in algebra as a result of the class. “The kids are learning,” Dagler said. “It’s definitely helping (improve their math skills).”