Teachers get a crash course in robotics

For six weeks during her summer vacation, Henry C. Lea School’s Latoya Landfair spent hours each day in Penn’s General Robotics, Automation, Sensing, and Perception (GRASP) Laboratory. Studying alongside nine other School District of Philadelphia middle school teachers, Landfair was able to learn about computer vision—a field she plans to introduce to her seventh-grade math students this year.

With support from her new contacts at the GRASP Lab, Landfair, a Graduate School of Education alumna, will also be in charge of Lea’s first robotics program.

“I’ve heard of robotics programs before,” Landfair says. “But I never thought I could actually lead one.”

That is, until now.

Landfair garnered her confidence to run such a program while participating in this past summer’s GRASP Lab-led Research Experience for Teachers (RET) initiative, which is backed by a three-year National Science Foundation grant. The new project paired local middle school teachers, tasked with conducting graduate-level science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) research, with doctoral students working in the labs of the School of Engineering and Applied Science’s Dan KoditschekKostas Daniilidis, and Vijay Kumar, the Nemirovsky Family Dean.

Landfair’s mentor was Christine Allen-Blanchette, a fifth-year Ph.D. student studying computer and information science.

“It’s incredible that these teachers were here for only six weeks but came out speaking the same language as we do, and we’ve been working on this for years,” Allen-Blanchette says. “It’s important that they can now take this back to their middle school classrooms. I had early exposure to engineering, and that’s a lot of the reason why I’m an engineer today.”

The RET program was spearheaded by Koditschek, the Alfred Fitler Moore Professor of Electrical and Systems Engineering, and Dan Ueda, the GRASP Lab’s associate director for education and outreach. Partnering with the school district, they brought in dedicated teachers from schools serving low-income, underrepresented minority populations, with the hope of helping them become better STEM educators. Two teachers hailed from each participating school: Lea, Roberto Clemente, Dunbar Promise Academy, Thurgood Marshall, and A.M.Y. at James Martin.

“The program provided a real, open-ended investigative experience in engineering and applied science, where the teachers had to learn a tremendous amount,” Ueda says. “Those teachers then can create these experiences for their students, all with the goal of having more diverse students that can do and are inspired by this work.”

In addition to researching a variety of STEM topics related to robotics, which they formally presented on in Levine Hall at the close of the program, the educators sat in on lectures by Penn faculty and worked with Ueda, a former high school math and physics teacher, to develop related activities for their students. All the teachers involved received an $8,000 stipend, plus $2,000 to purchase teaching tools. Comcast and the Navy were industry mentors for the program, providing teachers with a tangible understanding of STEM’s real-world applications.

“We want the teachers to have the familiarity of these different industry jobs, so they can convey to students that this is what their future career could look like,” Koditschek says.

The industry mentors and doctoral students will continue to work with the middle school teachers throughout the academic year, coming to the classroom on occasion to discuss their work and implement units developed during the RET program.

Although the first year of the RET program was a “great experience,” both Ueda and Koditschek are hesitant to declare it a “success.”

“This is about much more than just having a good time,” Koditschek says, adding, “Time will tell. We are trying to have an impact on STEM education in the United States, and to what extent we are contributing with this program, we just don’t know yet.”

But they are committed to finding out. Throughout the next year, Koditschek will be facilitating follow-up research with the young students in the teachers’ classrooms. An outside organization—Research for Action—will interview the teachers at the end of the year to talk about the impact the program has made on their lessons.

The goal is long-term, Koditschek stresses.

“Since the grant lasts until 2019, we will have two more cohorts, and each time we’ll be studying what worked well and what didn’t work, more from the human-learning side,” he says. “This won’t be a shot-in-the-dark, one-off thing. We think the nation needs this.”