Upland Junior High School students cheered on their entry in a USC Viterbi School of Engineering-sponsored botball tournament for middle school students held on May 4.
Botball is an educational program that strives to engage students in team-oriented robotics competition.
Over two months of intensive training, the students went from being vaguely interested in robots and the math and science behind them to developing a keen interest in robotics and other science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)-related subjects.
On that Saturday, their team would finish fourth out of 48 teams. Though the team didn’t take home the grand prize, members may have learned something more important, according to mentors Jason Craig and Deyon Shearer.
“Going through this process brings more meaning to the math and science they’re taking in school,” said Craig, a STEM teacher at Upland Junior High. “They can see an outcome. There’s a reason to learn it.”
The high school competed in the largest regional botball tournament in the world, which was organized by Ross Mead, a USC Viterbi PhD candidate in computer science. Two months earlier, Mead introduced students to the computer programming material at a two-day training session at USC. During the session, the 10-student Upland High team worked with their mentors to learn robot design and computer programming.
In the Shrine Auditorium & Expo Hall, Upland students prepared their robot for the first round of competition. The team’s robot earned the seventh-highest number of points in that round by completing obstacle course tasks, such as capturing objects or knocking them down.
Upland advanced to the double elimination round in which its robot won five head-to-head competitions by autonomously navigating the course more efficiently than competitors.
A National Science Foundation grant funded Upland and 27 other botball teams to study different mentorship styles and their impact on student self-confidence in STEM.
Mead hopes the grant received by USC will help educators understand the most effective ways to foster a deeper appreciation of STEM and increase student self-confidence. The nation’s economic future and continued ability to innovate are at stake, some experts believe.
According to those experts, the United States suffers from a lack of young students who are excited about entering STEM fields. Only 4.5 percent of American students receive university degrees in engineering, compared to 14 percent in Europe and 21 percent in Asia, according to a recent Forbes editorial by Andrew Viterbi PhD ’62, namesake of USC Viterbi.
Student belief in their scientific abilities is a solid indicator of whether they will enter into STEM-related fields. It is an even more accurate predictor than past achievement, according to experts.
“It’s about inspiring kids to do something that they frankly think they are incapable of doing,” Mead said.
Mead understands the importance of a strong mentor as well as anyone. In a small high school in Illinois, Mead excelled in math and science, yet he didn’t see these skills leading to a desirable career path. A professor at a nearby university encouraged him to start a robotics team at his school to compete in botball.
Under Mead’s direction, the team won the competition two years in a row, beating dozens of high school and college teams. Thirteen years later, Mead still maintains his relationship, both personal and professional, with his former mentor, Jerry Weinberg of Southern University Illinois-Edwardsville.
Mead credits the encouragement he received from his mentor for his engineering success. He wants other young students to benefit from similar relationships.
Maja Matarić, Mead’s PhD adviser and renowned robotics expert at USC Viterbi, shares Mead’s belief in the power of encouraging students to enter STEM-related fields.
“Role modeling, mentoring and championing are critical for recruiting and retaining students in fields that are not typical, popularized or stereotyped career choices,” Matarić said.
Upland students already feel more confident in their abilities. When they began building their robot, they only wanted to score in the competition. When they saw their robot performing well in the recent competition, they said they hoped to place first, second or third.
Though they fell just short of their goal, they said they were proud of their performance and looked forward to coming back next year.
“To watch the robot our team created run and work, it felt awesome,” said 12-year-old student Saqlian Naqvi.