Robot battles, drone tournaments, fan-filled arenas: The new brand of STEM education is goal-driven, group-oriented -- and giddily intense
In a world where technology is becoming a cornerstone to career success — and in a city that continues to expand its economy beyond the service industry — it’s no surprise that STEM education has become a focus for parents and educators alike. A background in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) can help students prepare for future careers in a host of fields, from architecture and engineering to biology and biomedicine.
And they’re no longer just studying it through books, laptops and long formulas scribbled on dry-erase boards. In recent years, STEM education in Las Vegas has had a reboot. From science expos to robotics competitions, STEM experiences are leaving the traditional classroom setting in favor of convention centers, museums, parks, and even fan-filled sports arenas. And more and more, the T in STEM is starting to stand not just for “technology,” but also for “teamwork.”
Consider: In May, enthusiastic fans and intensely focused competitors gathered in St. Louis, Mo. Instead of cheering for their favorite athletes, the fans were watching a battle between high school teams at the FIRST Robotics World Championships. One of the teams that participated in the event, the High Rollers from Cimarron-Memorial High School, earned the prestigious Chairman’s Award.
“The Chairman’s Award is only given out once a year at the world championships to the team that is the best of the best on the field, off the field, and in their community. It’s what every team aspires to become. This year our team was the first team from the state of Nevada to ever win it,” says Eric Stensrud, who has served as a coach for the High Rollers team for 13 years. The Chairman’s Award also earned Cimarron High School’s team a spot in the high school robotics hall of fame as well as a lifetime invitation to the FIRST Robotics World Championships.
In Cimarron’s division, students were given six weeks to create and program large robots for competition. This year’s challenge combined capture-the-flag, basketball, and Renaissance-style castles, giving students the opportunity to learn about engineering, robotics, and, perhaps most importantly, teamwork.
“There’s a lot of good science that they learn through the hands-on activities. But they also learn how to plan, how to think, how to work as a team, and how to problem-solve. Even more importantly, they learn how to communicate,” says Jean Hoppert, FIRST Nevada Board President. “You can have the best idea in the world, but if you can’t communicate it or sell it or market it, then it doesn’t happen.”
FIRST Nevada is a division of the global organization, FIRST, which offers programs for students in elementary, middle, and high school. Founded by entrepreneur and inventor Dean Kamen, FIRST strives to help inspire tomorrow’s technology leaders. Children as young as age 6 can joining the FIRST LEGO League Jr. Challenge, honing their skills throughout FIRST programs as they grow, culminating with the FIRST Robotics Competition for high school students.
The organization takes the practicality of STEM-based learning and combines it with the excitement of sports. Just like dedicated athletes, FIRST Robotics Competition participants spend long hours honing their craft. But unlike a sport, where the rules are constant, robotics presents an ever-shifting set of circumstances, and students must learn to adapt.
“With robotics, every year, the game changes. So the students have to change their mindset,” says Stensrud. The ability to adapt can help students in the future when they enter the workforce.
Cheryl Wagner, Coordinator for The Clark County School District’s Community Partnership Program, believes that an understanding of technology and the ability to think creatively will be increasingly important as students move on and begin the job hunt.
“The technology industry is so critical to everything we do today as a society. We have to build a workforce to fill jobs that don’t exist yet and that we don’t even know the technology for yet. So we as educators have to start preparing our children,” she says. “If I’m a teacher in a classroom, I have to teach these students about STEM, how put it all together, and how to creatively think and creatively design.”
In addition to the practical skills that students learn through FIRST programs, they also forge new friendships, connecting with others who have a similar interest in technology. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that more than $25 million worth of scholarships are available for FIRST students nationwide who plan to pursue degrees in STEM disciplines.
Students and parents are definitely taking notice of the opportunities FIRST programs can provide. “The participation and number of teams for U.S. FIRST and for FIRST Nevada continues to grow and expand each season,” says FIRST Nevada Regional Director, Angela Quick. She notes that, compared to last season, FIRST Nevada saw an overall increase of 5.6 percent in the number of teams across all four programs. That participation includes kids from a variety of educational backgrounds, including the homeschooling community.
“We are really at a critical stage here in our educational system, and we need something to inspire young people to pursue education. This program actually inspires young people to apply the knowledge they’ve learned. Our goal is to have every child who wants to participate have a place to do so,” says Hoppert.
Bots in the sky
Meanwhile, Las Vegas-based Skybot Business and Innovation Challenge, a relatively new program, puts robotics concepts and the thrill of competition into flight. Teams of students learn to operate and repair drones, competing in fast-paced events that include obstacle courses and time trials.
“We did a trial competition in May, 2015, and it turned out to be phenomenally successful. The kids had to learn how to repair and run the skybots and how to replace parts,” says Steven Curtis, Executive Director of the Skybot Business and Innovation Challenge.
Twenty-seven teams participated in the 2016 Skybot Challenge, representing schools from across the valley, including Hyde Park Middle School, Agassi Prep Middle School, Sunrise Mountain High School, Faith Lutheran Middle School, Findlay Middle School and Lied Middle School.
“Our motto is, ‘Passion, innovation, and discovery.’ One thing about skybots is that kids instantly take to them. If I walk into a classroom with a skybot, they are just drawn to it. So, it’s easy to get kids involved and get them interested in this,” says Curtis.
Like the FIRST Robotics Competition, the Skybot Challenge does not focus solely on technical skills. It also encourages communication skills, teamwork, and business-savvy. And it does so at a critical point in children’s lives, says Curtis. “Teamwork is very important, and I don’t think kids think about that all the time. You’re planting the seeds in middle school for the rest of their lives, in terms of their habits and attitudes,” he says.
Building cities with science
STEM-based competitions aren’t reserved for kids who want to fly a drone or program a robot. Middle school and high school students compete each year in the Nevada Science Bowl, hoping to earn a trip to the national competition held in Washington, D.C. The competition has grown from 19 high-school teams when the Nevada Science Bowl was introduced in 1991, to more than 30 teams in 2016.
Another popular STEM contest is the Future City Competition, where tomorrow’s engineers learn about sustainability and city planning. Each school year, Future City competitors are given a particular problem to solve, and each team must research and design a city that demonstrates a solution to the problem. First, teams of middle school students use the SimCity platform to create their virtual city. They also write an essay, build a 3-D model, and present their plans to a panel of judges. Past challenges have focused on topics such as green energy and urban agriculture. This year’s challenge will focus on the importance of multiuse public space. Last year, students tackled the topic of solid-waste management systems.
Like the FIRST Nevada Robotics Competition and the Skybot Challenge, Future City participants are rewarded not only for their technical skills, but also for their ability to communicate effectively and work as a team. Each team consists of three members, and all participants must take part in each phase of the competition, ensuring that the Future City challenge is a team effort. In April, Team Kilau from Hyde Park Middle School received a particularly important honor: They were invited to the White House Science Fair, thanks to their design of a sustainable, waste-free city. Such a buzzworthy honor helped the Future City program gain additional momentum in Southern Nevada.
“Some of the educators from last year have already signed up. So we’re expecting a pretty big year,” says Pom Jintasawang, Future City coordinator.
In addition to earning a trip to the White House, Hyde Park’s team also won the Southern Nevada Future City Competition and received the Most Sustainable Buildings Award at the national competition in Washington, D.C. in February.
Field trip reloaded
Although STEM-based competitions are gaining popularity, they aren’t the only avenue for studying science and math. It’s important that hands-on STEM learning also finds its way into regular school hours, through field trips to the valley’s many parks and natural areas. Providing these kinds of interactive experiences requires teamwork of a different kind — this time on the part of educators.
The CHOLLA (Connecting Hands Offering Lifelong Learning Adventures) consortium connects students with STEM activities through their partnership with the Clark County School District and dozens of parks, museums, and state agencies, including Red Rock Canyon, Wetlands Park, the Neon Museum, and Springs Preserve. One of CHOLLA’s goals is to help ensure that school field trips go hand-in-hand with classroom curriculum and that local venues offer students valuable experiences while also keeping safety in mind.
“CHOLLA is a collection of informal educators. We all get together on a regular basis to set goals and pick projects to improve general student proficiency in the region,” says Aaron Leifheit, facilitator with CHOLLA. “Being part of CHOLLA means that you’re going to follow certain standards and have best practices in place and safety procedures in place to ensure that the kids are going to have a good, safe experience.”
Rather than limiting science education to the classroom, teachers have an opportunity to bring their students outdoors where they can see it in action. In addition to field trips, the school district is also taking STEM learning outdoors, thanks to more than 130 school gardens and gardening clubs that can be found throughout the district.
“If you want to teach someone sports, you don’t keep them in a classroom and show them videos of the NBA and say ‘Okay, now you’re good at sports,’” says Leifheit. “So we shouldn’t do the same thing with science, either.” It’s an idea that students, teachers and parents are cheering for.