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Engaging Middle School Students In Engineering: The Robotics System Design Camp Nature As Inspiration

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2008 Annual Conference & Exposition


Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Publication Date

June 22, 2008

Start Date

June 22, 2008

End Date

June 25, 2008



Conference Session

Engineering in Middle Schools

Tagged Division

K-12 & Pre-College Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

13.495.1 - 13.495.20



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Paper Authors


Reid Bailey University of Virginia

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REID BAILEY is an Assistant Professor and Assistant to the Chair in the Department of Systems and Information Engineering at the University of Virginia. His research interests focus on studying how students learn complex engineering skills such as engineering design. He received his B.S. from Duke University and both his M.S. and Ph.D. from the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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Susan Donohue University of Virginia

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Susan Donohue recently completed a term as an AGEP Postdoctoral Engineering Education Researcher (PEER) in the Center of Advancement of Scholarship on Engineering Education Research (CASEE), the National Academy of Engineering. She received the B.A. degree in political science from Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin and the M.E. and Ph.D. degrees in systems engineering from the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. Her academic honors include memberships in Phi Beta Kappa, Alpha Sigma Nu, and Omega Rho. Her professional affiliations include IEEE and ASEE. Her research interests include knowledge engineering and retention/persistence issues.

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Engaging Middle School Students in Engineering: The Robotics System Design Camp – Nature as Inspiration Abstract

We report on the development and implementation of a summer robotics camp for middle school students in this paper. Robotics is a widely used and popular activity for engaging students in the engineering design process. One of our primary goals, however, was to offer an enhancement of the typical robotics experience in order to recruit a diverse set of applicants: an experience grounded in systems engineering paradigms in a format that would appeal to an audience interested in more than robot assembly and programming. Thus, the Robotics System Design Camp: Nature as Inspiration was created. We used the analogy of natural systems (e.g., foraging ants and swarming bees) for search and discovery as a base upon which systems engineering solutions, chiefly shortest path algorithms, could be developed and applied through robotics. The appeal of this approach for middle school students is evaluated through a mixed methods approach. Results indicate that, in spite of efforts to create hands-on activities through which campers could experience the solution of shortest path problems in the context of natural systems, campers preferred the robotics activities, indicating a need to adjust the systems engineering components to be more appealing to this age group. The narratives and appended materials give interested readers sufficient information to design and implement similar outreach programs.


Placing institutional values of professional and community service in action, the Department of Systems and Information Engineering at the University of Virginia (SIE) developed and implemented the Robotics Systems Design Camp: Nature as Inspiration in 2007 as a means to engage in outreach to the crucial-to-interest-in-engineering demographic of middle school students. We report on the development and performance of the camp in this paper with the goal of providing sufficient information and motivation for others to follow, since it will indeed “take a (professional and institutional) village” to combat the well-known shortfall expected in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) professions as the two trends of baby-boomers retiring and fewer students engaging in STEM studies collide.

The camp leadership committee determined that, to be successful, the following goals needed to be met in designing the camp: 1) to develop approaches to relate systems engineering to middle school students, and 2) to focus on hands-on activities for the campers. To that end, the leadership committee focused on the following questions:

• What impact could the camp have on middle school students’ knowledge and attitudes towards engineering? • What characteristics of hands-on activities are most exciting to middle school students?

The resulting camp design uses the theme of using natural systems as inspiration for technological systems, an idea connected to research areas of several faculty working on “swarming” algorithms for robots. This connection to faculty research in our department was

Bailey, R., & Donohue, S. (2008, June), Engaging Middle School Students In Engineering: The Robotics System Design Camp Nature As Inspiration Paper presented at 2008 Annual Conference & Exposition, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 10.18260/1-2--4150

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2008 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015