Building STEM Skills
STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education is the focus of much discussion these days. Jobs in STEM fields are plentiful and lucrative, but the number of students interested in these careers is not keeping up with demand, especially in the cases of females and people of color.
TCEA’s robotics contests give students the opportunity to develop STEM skills with hands-on, collaborative projects. Students from elementary (Intermediate) and secondary (Advanced) schools design, collaborate, plan, redesign, construct, create, assemble, invent, reinvent, write, present, and compete to see who has developed a winning robot.
There are two distinct categories in the TCEA Robotics Contest. The Arena competition is a prescribed problem contest where students program their robot to accomplish a list of specific tasks. The Inventions competition is open-ended; students choose a real-world problem and create a robotic solution. They use marketing, programming, writing, constructing, and presentation skills as part of this competition.
Whether your team will be competing in Arena or Inventions, all participants must read and abide by the official rules.
Starting a Robotics Program
Robotics is an invaluable resource for teaching science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills. It also develops critical thinking, collaboration, and problem solving, along with other 21st century skills such as creativity, imagination, curiosity, and innovation. A curriculum that includes robotics provides students with the ability to take an active role in their own learning and forms a necessary foundation for their lives in the ever-changing world.
Become a Robotics Sponsor
A sponsor provides students with a learning space to build and program, creates a support system, secures funding for equipment and registration fees, and transports students to contests. Sponsors are usually educators who teach a class, have an afterschool program, or manage a Saturday club.
A church, community organization, and the Girl/Boy Scouts are welcome to participate in the TCEA Robotics Contest, however a sponsor is required to be a member of TCEA. TCEA membership is $49 for a full year.
Equipment – Ideally, you want one LEGO EV3 core set and one LEGO EV3 expansion set for every two students. The expansion set comes in handy to replace parts that might get lost from the core kit. This set also has unique parts needed to take your invention or arena build to the next level.
Software – The LEGO MINDSTORMS Education (LME) EV3 programming language is perfect for both elementary and middle school. High school has several programming options: ROBOTC, LabVIEW, and LeJOS, Java for Lego Mindstorms. The LME EV3 program can also fit with the high school level, because the software has advanced programming, such as: cascading switches, multiple tasks, variables, and arrays.
Equipment Storage and Organization
Storage – The storage containers provided by LEGO are a unique piece of engineering for the robotics classroom. Students can use the lid as a sorting and building tray because the rim will keep pieces from rolling. You will need to invest in some plastic bins to house semi-built and built robots. It’s a good idea to store your robots in a covered tub, especially if you are short on storage, as containers can be stacked on top of each other.
Organization – You should number your sets, bricks, lids, and such with a permanent marker. Another recommendation is using colors. Label the building book, both sides of the bin, lid, inventory card, brick, and power supply. Colored electrical tape or colored coding labels (dot shaped) work well for labeling purposes.
Computers – There should be one computer for each robot/team of students. Each student should learn how to program.
Keeping Track of Your Parts – Electronic parts (motors and sensors) can be issued to students on a check in/out basis. Plastic storage containers and fishing tackle boxes come in handy for the many LEGO pieces found in the robotic sets.
Technic Building Elements – Thingamabobs, whatchamacallits, and doohickeys are not names anyone should be calling LEGO technic building pieces. Learning the proper names of the 500+ pieces you find in a core set would be a challenge, but the students should know the most commonly used parts. The technic beams are counted by the holes. Use the technic beam holes to measure axles. An axle that is four holes long is a #4 axle, eight holes long is a #8 axle, and so forth. Gears are identified by number of teeth. The proper names of the sensors are touch, gyro, color, and ultrasonic. Connector pegs are identified by length and color. We sell an EV3 Parts Poster in our online store. Posters can be purchased, here, for $5 each + shipping.
Practice Area – Don’t forget you will need a space large enough to run the robot challenges or practice for competition. Finally, you will need to think about storage for your paraphernalia when your room is used for classroom instruction.
TCEA Robotics Contests
For those in education, a new year begins each August rather than January. Robotics sponsors unlock cabinets, dust off robotics kits, and plug in the bricks. Back to school for thousands of students means brainstorming a new robotics invention or examining the new arena challenge.
Each year TCEA holds 20 area (regional) contests around the Lone Star State. There are two divisions based on grade level. 4th-8th grade are designated Intermediate and 8th-12th grade are Advanced. Intermediate students can compete at the advanced level if they so desire. First and Second Place Area Winners teams advance to the State Contest in the spring, which is held in central Texas.
- Determine Your Area – The contest you participate in depends on which Area you belong to. To determine your area, find out which ESC you belong to. Your area number correlates with your ESC number.
- Become a Member – The team sponsor must have an active TCEA membership for the duration of your contest season. Membership is $49.
- Determine the Contest and Division – Students have the choice of competing in the Arena Contest or the Inventions Contest. Like apples and oranges, the two cannot really be compared.
The Inventions Contest
Each Inventions team follows the engineering design process to create a robot that solves a real world problem. This contest has a one-page description, one page of rules, and one rubric. Teams keep a detailed logbook and prepare a six-minute presentation for the judges. Students showcase their research, robot performance, robot design, marketing strategies, and presentation skills for the judges at the TCEA Inventions Contest. LEGOs are not the only building material for this contest… lumber, metal, plastic, PVC pipe, dirt, and frying pans have been utilized. Let your students imagine, test, and construct as needed.
The Arena Contest
Each fall, teams receive a 25-page document (available after September 1) for the Arena competition. The guide explains the competition background, general robot rules, game description, game pieces, and game-specific rules. Sometimes there is a special twist for the state championship, so it is crucial to read the Arena robotics challenge guide from beginning to end, multiple times.
Arena teams build a robot using one LEGO EV3 or NXT, a specific set of motors and sensors, and LEGO-branded elements. Teams are allowed a total retail value of $5 to incorporate non-electrical, non-LEGO parts on their robots to enhance functionality or for decoration. Note this important disclaimer: No LEGOs can be harmed for competition. Do not melt, deform, cut, bend, glue, or solder our favorite plastic bricks.
Arena teams participate in three two-minute rounds. A team’s robot must perform specific tasks on the challenge field. Points, penalties, and bonus awards are calculated at the end of each round. Task goals may differ between Intermediate and Advanced divisions.
The 2016-2017 Arena Contest Problem
The Arena contest varies each year based on the problem, which is crafted by a professional engineer. Students must employ strategies that involve speed, accuracy, sensing objects, and light. Come back after September 1 to download this year’s problem.
This year, the Arena Contest’s problem writer is an electrical engineer at Bell helicopter, a former elementary teacher, and she has judged Area 16’s Arena Contest for four years.