It seems as though robotics is the next big thing in education, if the recent trend of youth-oriented robotics competitions is anything to go by. For example, the Ashesi Robotics Experience (ARX), which took place last week at Ghana's Ashesi University College, aimed to get youth excited about education through robotics.
Meanwhile, closer to home, a robotics program at Detroit's Cass Technical High School shares a similar aim with the ARX.
Led by physics teach Karl Balke, the robotics team of about 20 students designs, builds, programs, pilots and develops scoring mechanisms for robots – all while raising the money to participate in robotics competitions. According to Balke, this program is vital.
"It's like a lot of the other extracurricular programs," Balke said. "If this program did not exist, some of these students would not be going to school."
Unfortunately, Balke's statement isn't too far off the mark as the Detroit Public School District has struggled with student attendance. During the 2010-11 school year, for example, student attendance levels fell below 75 percent on 10 separate days.
The Michigan Engineering Zone (MEZ), however, exists to at least provide students in the area who are interested in robotics with a central location to share their interest. The MEZ is located at Orchestra Place in Detroit's Midtown area, and is sponsored by the University of Michigan in partnership with Detroit Public Schools.
MEZ provides students with the opportunity to participate in two international contests: the FIRST Robotics Competition, which challenges students to create a robot weighing about 150 lbs. in six weeks; and VEX, which has students create smaller robots.
FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is a non-profit organization founded by inventor Dean Kamen that recently received a $200,000 grant from the Motorola Solutions Foundation.
These programs working together provide students a place to spend their time challenging themselves while furthering interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Many students who participate in the FIRST Robotics Competition and VEX or who just spend a lot of time at MEZ find themselves more interested in pursuing further education.
"I've seen some that never considered to go to college actually decide to go. They may not be going into a technical field but they actually decide what they want to do after they get out of high school," said Tito Huffman, a professional engineer who mentors students in robotics. "I've seen students change their total mind as to what they want to do in their lives."
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Edited by Braden Becker