Nebraska Engineering Fall, 2006
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Reaching the Millennium Generation

David Shabram
David Shabram, a teacher at Westside Middle School, cuts a wire that he soldered onto the motor terminals of his TekBot®. Inset: Bing Chen

Bing Chen believes the best way to get students interested in engineering is to ignite their creative urges.

That’s why the Department of Computer Electronics and Engineering has used the TekBot® as the glue between courses since 2004, said Chen, the department’s chairperson. Now he is introducing the TekBot® to potential students as well.

The TekBot® is a 9-inch by 5-inch robot. Each student in the department receives a TekBot® at the beginning of his or her freshman year. Students use concepts from their engineering courses—and their imaginations— to customize a basic robot each semester through their senior year.

Need more power? Install a new motor. Want to control the robot while watching television? Build an infrared remote control. A group of juniors even programmed their robots to play laser tag.

“The TekBot® is a fun learning platform,” junior Dan Norman said. “Once you put a microprocessor on there, you can put on all sorts of other applications.”

Chen said the TekBot® was one way to keep students excited about engineering and apply their coursework to a tangible product. The curriculum was developed at Oregon State University.

After observing how popular the TekBot® was among college students, Chen realized that robotics could be an effective tool to get younger students interested in engineering. He recently received a $1.17 million grant from the National Science Foundation to bring TekBots® to middle school classrooms, particularly in low-income areas. Each Tek- Bot® costs $100.

The pilot project will begin this fall in the Omaha Public Schools.

“Part of the problem in getting students interested in engineering is that K-12 education includes math and science curriculum but not engineering,” Chen said. “What are fundamental engineering principles? Why should teachers encourage their students to considering engineering as a profession?”

He wants teenagers to understand that engineers developed many of the electronic gadgets they use daily, such as MP3 players, cellular phones and plasma screen televisions.

“We want them to understand that engineering applies knowledge to benefit society,” Chen said.

The teachers participating in the TekBot® pilot program are critical to the program’s success, he said. In July, the department hosted a two-week workshop to train 30 Nebraska middle school teachers to build a TekBot® and develop lesson plans, many of which reinforce basic math and science skills. After the workshop, participants will meet monthly to share their progress and get new lesson ideas.

Jennie Premer, who teaches seventh grade at McMillan Magnet Center, said she would use the TekBot® to reinforce mathematical standards.

“It gives students an immediate visual on how, for instance, slope works,” Premer said.

Chen said the workshop was an intense course in circuitry, soldering and the societal impact of robots. For many teachers, the workshop was the first time they’d experimented with welding and circuitry.

“These teachers represent the front line of math and science education,” Chen said. “We have to empower our teachers and give them a sense of possibility about engineering sciences.”

The college is working with faculty from the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s College of Education to measure the program’s effectiveness. Chen said he hopes someday, there will be enough schools using the curriculum to have a citywide TekBot® competition.

“We have to make certain that our youngest children have a sense that engineering is a good opportunity,” he said. “We have to reignite the sense of wonder, the sense of creativity, of why this is a dynamic, not static, subject.”

—Ashley Washburn