VEX Robotics Impact on STEM Education

Recently, I had a conversation with a colleague who expressed doubt about the positive impact of robotics programs such as VEX on STEM education.

Here is a published study that sheds some light on the subject. The article should be of interest to team mentors/coaches/leaders/…

I apologize if the article has been cited here before, I did a quick search but could not find a reference to it here.

Though i am a student, i’m curious, yet still a bit confused by the subject and research. Though i’ll admit, I only skimmed through and looked at charts.

When reading the charts, i was expecting something negative towards robotics programs. Especially since you’ve posted about a doubtful colleague, didn’t mention end result, and posted in a place where nearly everyone supports the vex program.

Looking at the charts though, i have to admit a few things surprised me. More females were interested in the program than guys. Especially with the stereotype how engineering is filled with males. Of course i heard that more girls are going into the field, but to outnumber them is interesting.

One thing i have to question though is vested interest. According to the paper, the average person was already interested in STEM, college bound, and a good student. That doesn’t really show how it attracted more people. Not to mention, robotics programs are often optional. I only know of a few schools which incorporate robotics into schools. Everything else is a club, where people decide to join or forced by parents/siblings. Additionally, the range given from how the survey was collected. Since students participated in an online survey for the competition for a prize for the team, that suggests people only interested in the competition would join. Why would someone who dislikes the program help the team which participates in the program? The second gathering from maryland and orlando were also questionable. A Maryland i would understand. it has a wide range of teams and skill levels. But interviewing teams who qualified for worlds is troubling. People who spent the time and money to advance that far would like the program, or endure a lot of stress. The other thing which is questionable is that with this data, this mainly covers the U.S., not the 3400 other teams that come from other countries. Not to mention the things needed to make it to the united states. Another thing which bothers me is that there are no letters from people who disliked the program (please note i still skimmed). It would be strong to say Selective Observation, especially when i’ll admit i didn’t read it well. Though i didn’t see from the reading, i would also wonder what was the order of the choices. I’ve seen many people who just breeze through surveys, selecting the first choice. If “agree” was always the first choice, numbers would be off. Rather, if “Not Sure” was first, bias would not occur.

However, there were things i liked. The fact that they included the not sure option didn’t divide the questioned. They covered a wide array of backgrounds. I also liked how they chose to interview young mentors. Obviously, mentors who volunteered for a while would support the program. Especially if their money and time was on the line. They also touched on other time periods to further solidify results.

Personally, I love the robotics program and i’m extremely active. I’ve been a Treasurer, VEX captain, FTC captain, Vice President, and President of my team. I’m also looking forward to mentoring a team once i graduate from high school and possibly compete in college vex and frc. However, I’ve seen my fair share of people discouraged by robotics programs. I’ve seen how the stress of competition brought some of my friends down. Nevertheless, with the proper attention, these flaws can be avoided.

Maybe there’s a better article about the effects of robotics competitions?..

You have raised a few interesting points.

I too think that the study is less than ideal, that we need more direct and conclusive evidence on the impact of programs such as VRC on STEM learning.

The authors do acknowledge the limited scope of the work. At the same time, they point out that the results is consistent with findings from other similar studies. That indeed is encouraging.

To better grasp the significance of the study, it helps to distinguish between interest in robotics competitions and interest in STEM related studies. It is true that a significant majority of VRC participants are interesting in building robots and competing, why would they be here otherwise? But, that does not necessarily mean they are interested in taking more math/science/engineering
courses in high school and beyond. The study seems to show that the practice of building and competing here indeed sparks interest in STEM learning in a significant way. That is good news!

But, is it sufficient to just show that, after say 4 years of VEX experience, the participants are now more interested in learning STEM topics? Or, do we need to take this one step further and show that, in addition to interest, the students have actually developed a depth of understanding in one or more STEM topics commensurate with the duration of the experience?

The vested interest point is definitely one to think on, but while the optional nature of this program might hurt its ability to attract MORE students to Engineering, it is certainly doing a good job of educating the students who were already interested.

I would take quality over quantity any day.

In my opinion, VEX along with other platforms such as Lego, Tetrix and competitions such as FLL, FTC, FRC, and Best have a huge impact on the world of STEM. The company I work for teaches all robotics platforms and every one of my students is planning on pursuing a career in engineering or computer science all because of competing in VEX or FTC. I even had an 11 year old girl sit in during one of my classes and she learned RobotC quicker than the high schoolers I was teaching and now she has a Rasp Pi blog with over 10,000 followers. Here is her site.
What VEX is doing is great, I just wish that they gave out more scholarships like FIRST does, and I would like to see more teams in the community talking to younger kids about robotics and trying to get them interested. The world needs more engineers and VEX is an awesome place to start.

I beleive Vex is starting to fill this gap now as they announced at worlds with scholarships starting to be a priority and getting to younger kids, well Vex IQ seems to be that roadmap along with the associated programs.

In my mind Vex IQ vs FLL --> Kids want to drive their robot!

However, FLL is big already and kids have plenty of Legos at home.

Proof in education is pretty hard to come by. People are darn frustrating things to study, especially when you consider knowledge, skills, and attitudes. Educational papers, like most papers in the social sciences, are very frustrating for those of us used to expecting the types of data and controls we see in the physical sciences. The papers that show support for robotics competitions are nice, but not nearly as convincing as the experience I get working with the students.

To a certain extent, however, I’ll agree with the sentiment that robotics competitions don’t do *all *that much for STEM. Quite frankly, however, I don’t see STEM results as the primary justification for robotics competitions.

Rather I look at the team-building, social experiences; the stressful, time-constrained competition building, repair and strategy forming experiences; and the rewarding cheer from a crowd for doing something smart.

Yeah, there is a certain degree of STEM-inspiring benefit from robotics competitoins, but I don’t think it’s wrong to say that *most *robotics competitors were already considering futures in STEM. What we are doing for them is giving them the opportunity to build up a series of experiences and “soft skills” that will be required to get the most benefit out of the technical skills that they were likely to aquire anyway.

That is almost impossible to track in a statistically significant study, but is blissfully easy to track on an anecdotal basis. All I need to do is talk to the students taking part in these competitions, see the look on their faces… the stress of competition, the joy of victory, the determination to come back from defeat… and know that we’re doing something really, really good.

Studies are nice, they’re good to show to school boards and governments, but the absolute best way to convicne someone that robotics competitions are a good thing is to get them out to a competition and see the students in action. There is a reason that tens of thousands of mentors around the world volunteer crazy amounts of time for robotics teams, and it isn’t because it helps the students achive a 2.89% higher score on their math exams! Its because we know its a good thing!


Thinking about my post on vested interest, I started to ask, Why? Why aren’t more people involved in STEM related activities?

I know from band, 10% or even less people actually plan on pursuing music. This relationship can be followed to other performing arts such as drama, orchestra, and chorus. This can also be seen in sports like football, soccer, baseball, hockey, etc. So why are so many people in these activities without long term interest?

Thinking more, I think it’s due to 2 reasons: Exposure – and View

In elementary school (or I believe they call it primary school in other countries), my favorite class was P.E./Gym/ whatever you want to call it. I loved running, throwing balls, rolling around in the grass until my white shirt was decorated with gold and green grass. But as a child, I had a liked engineering. Some of my influence came from my father. He led me down the right path to be an engineer. He merely mentioned the importance of math and science to engineering. However, my biggest influence came from Television ( though they were cartoons) and Legos.

I know my band director, as a child she disliked running around. Rather, she played instruments and that become her passion. Exposure-- to engineering and technology swung me from sports. If it wasn’t for the flashy lights and moving parts it wouldn’t have caught my childish mentality. I still remember, 2 years ago, my sophomore year, there was a young, maybe 10 year old kid looking at our Logomotion bot at a demonstration. I remember the lights reflecting off his large dark eyes. I remember the warm giggle as we plaved a tube around his head. If weexploit of the “flashyness” of robotics like we’ve been trained to do in games, we can accomplish so much more. 18 inch cubed robots expanding 12 feet into the air? 19 pound robots hanging in under 10 seconds? Robots flinging multiple footballs and soccerballs further than some children? We have the tools to impress.

When a few people asked why I spend so much time with robotics, I gave them the answer. However, their reaction wasn’t something I expected. Their first reaction was “isn’t it hard”? From then on, I realized that the difficulty associated with this field isn’t a “challenge accepted” type deal, but rather it’s viewed a horrifying, foreign “thing”.

With proper exposure, we can desensitize the population’s view on the difficulty STEM, and show them the excitement. Now that I think about it, whoever though of Vex IQ deserves a promotion, a hug, a thank you, a letter from the president, and a granted wish. With continued exposure to demonstrations, facilitated by excellent mentorship, inspirational peers, and easy oppourtunities, STEM can spread and penetrate the population.