Since they were introduced in 2006, NAO robots have been helping students on the autistic spectrum connect socially. At Adams State University in Alamosa, Colorado, robotics professors are using these programmable humanoid robots to introduce the children of migrant workers to the STEM fields.
For the past three years Dr. Comfort Cover and her colleagues at Adams State have hosted the Migrant STEM Academy. Each year, 25 Hispanic students from Colorado middle schools immerse themselves in the college experience for three days while taking classes with STEM professors.
During their stay, students measure rivers and water streams with a geologist, locate and identify insects with a biologist, write math formulas to solve the Rubik’s cube with a mathematician and program a NAO robot with Cover, assistant professor of management information systems at Adams State.
Sticking to the Basics
The 23-inch tall NAO robot and its software, Choregraphe, were designed to allow students who have no experience writing computer code to learn the rudiments of computer programing. With minimal effort, teachers and professors can have elementary, middle and high school students programing a NAO robot to respond to questions, recognize a face and even dance. Students who have some coding experience and want more of a challenge can reach beyond the standard elements of Choregraphe and write code using the popular computer language Python.
With time at a premium in the academy, though, Cover sticks to the basics of computer programing. “I try to teach them about sequence selection and repetition and a little bit about objects, so they understand that baseline. It’s amazing how quickly they catch on and are off and running,” Cover said.
She starts with pseudo programing, encouraging students to think about the procedural steps necessary to complete an everyday task. In one exercise her students list the steps the robot would have to follow to change a flat tire. Then they sequence those steps. “You have to know all the steps and put them in sequence and then it will work. If you want to repeat it, you can repeat it. If you want a decision, you can put a decision in there. Those are your three major activities,” Cover said.
Filling a Void
For years, Hispanic migrant workers have flocked to Colorado’s San Luis Valley in search of employment. As a result, many of the students in the valley’s schools are Hispanic. For the most part these are the students who attend Adams State’s Migrant STEM Academy. Some even come from as far away as Greely, Colorado, about five hours to the north. “It’s just wonderful to see all the kids and the mentors who come with them,” Cover said.
Many of the students who attend the academy are first-generation. Few have parents who graduated high school, let alone college. Cover gets a sense of how much the parents value the academy when she sees their reaction at the reception she holds on the final day. Students are asked to choose a STEM field and create a presentation demonstrating what they learned about that field during their stay. Then they present at the reception. For example, to demonstrate math and chemistry skills, students perform a magic show. To demonstrate their coding skills, students program the NAO robot to perform a dance. “The parents just thought this was the best thing they’d ever seen,” Cover said.
STEM subjects can often be a tough sell to middle school students. However, through Adams State’s Migrant STEM Academy, middle school students realize that the material presented in STEM subjects is not as difficult as they thought. “It’s actually stuff you use every day,” Cover said.
Students don’t learn STEM subjects in a vacuum. The more they learn, the more they realize they’ll need a blend of skills to solve problems in the workforce. To illustrate this, Cover recalled that the group of students that used math to solve a Rubik’s cube later posed an interesting question: Is it possible to program the NAO robot to solve it, too? “How can we make that happen? So all of a sudden they brought the math right into the robot. That’s where you can see they get really excited because they see an overlap in the STEM fields,” Cover said. Some even asked if they could bring the robot out into the field on their next earth science trip. "[They thought] it would be really cool because it could help us find this stuff,” Cover said.
Middle school students are easily influenced, a fact that Cover exploits to set the STEM hook in their mouths. If students are introduced to STEM in middle school, she said, professors and teachers can have a lot more sway over their academic decisions.
It’s More Than Just STEM
The Migrant STEM Academy provides students with an opportunity to pursue those subjects that interest them and perhaps excites their interest in STEM. But that’s not all it does. While at Adams State students live in the dorms and receive a lunch pass for the cafeteria. “They get the full experience [of being at college], Cover said. Some are surprised when they learn that they don’t have to get permission to be excused from class as they do in middle school. “They all learn to really enjoy that. We say, ‘You’re an adult in my mind now, and you have to act like one,’” Cover said.
Over the years, Cover has noticed that some students show up for the academy two or three years in a row. Those who do are so excited about the program that they can’t wait to demonstrate what they’ve learned to the new arrivals, something that makes Cover happier than even the code that they write.
Through the Migrant STEM Academy, Cover is looking to get middle school students excited about STEM, which she hopes will create a pipeline of students into STEM professions. She hopes the academy will excite students in a manner that makes them say, “This is neat, and I want to do more of this. Where can I find it?” she said. •