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   from the issue of September 6, 2007

  $3M grant launches robotics curriculum

SPIRIT goes nationwide


A bevy of small robots will roll into the nation's schools to help children learn engineering, math, science and technology, thanks to a $3 million National Science Foundation grant to a University of Nebraska-Lincoln computer and electronics engineering team based in Omaha.

SPIRIT LEADER - Bing Chen, professor and chair of the Department of Computer and Electronics Engineering, holds a TekBot, a small...
 SPIRIT LEADER - Bing Chen, professor and chair of the Department of Computer and Electronics Engineering, holds a TekBot, a small robot used in an interactive engineering, math, science and technology curriculum his team is developing for schools nationwide. Photo by Troy Fedderson/University Communications.

The five-year grant for the Silicon Prairie Initiative on Robotics in Information Technology Phase 2, or SPIRIT 2.0, builds on a current NSF-funded program developed by a UNL Computer and Electronics Engineering Department team at Omaha's Peter Kiewit Institute. SPIRIT is the brainchild of Bing Chen, chair of computer and electronics engineering, who is leading development of this robotics-based curriculum to help teach math, science and technology to the nation's school children.

Since the original NSF-funded SPIRIT program began in 2006, UNL engineers at PKI and University of Nebraska at Omaha faculty have partnered with Omaha Public Schools to launch a program in Omaha's middle schools. The UNL-UNO team trained math and science teachers in fifth through eighth grades to build small robots, called TekBots, and then worked with them to develop lessons using TekBots in their classrooms.

"We're taking advantage of 100 teachers who have attended our TekBot workshops to assist us in designing a curriculum that can be distributed on a national basis," Chen said. Providing expertise in curriculum design and evaluation on the project are Neal Grandgenett and Elliott Ostler of UNO's College of Education and faculty from UNL's College of Education and Human Sciences and Iowa State University.

SPIRIT 2.0 will use the Internet to distribute a flexible series of lessons and technical materials to teachers nationwide. Once trained, they can then use TekBots to create hands-on, interactive lessons that illustrate concepts such as algebraic equations, friction, wireless and computer processing, and electronics.

Teachers must be trained to build and use TekBots, which are raw circuitry and wires on wheels that were invented at Oregon State University. The initial national workshop for teacher training will be in Omaha, but a distance-learning program will be developed to allow more teachers to participate. The team will create an online community where teachers can ask questions and share their own TekBot experiences, as well as online diagnostics to help teachers repair a TekBot by plugging it into a computer to link to a computer at PKI.

Chen designed SPIRIT to introduce young people to math and science at an early age and perhaps encourage more of them, particularly underrepresented women and minorities, to choose science and engineering careers.

"We don't have restrictions on the creativity of the students or the teachers," Chen said. "I expect that in five years we will be truly surprised by the direction some of these teachers go with their students."

UNL officials said the successful partnership between UNL, PKI and the Omaha Public Schools has laid a strong foundation.

"This project helps UNL contribute to efforts to increase America's talent pool by improving K-12 science and math education," said Chancellor Harvey Perlman. "Recent national reports suggest that to remain competitive as a nation, we must build on our idea-based economy and promote research. A key strategy is to encourage more young people to pursue interests in science, technology, engineering and math. By building on partnerships with colleagues at UNO and the Omaha Public Schools, this project fulfills that goal."



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