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Resources for Robot Competition Success: Assessing Math Use in Grade-School-Level Engineering Design

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2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Vancouver, BC

Publication Date

June 26, 2011

Start Date

June 26, 2011

End Date

June 29, 2011



Conference Session

Robot Mania!

Tagged Division

K-12 & Pre-College Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

22.1246.1 - 22.1246.24



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Paper Authors


Eli M. Silk University of Pittsburgh Orcid 16x16

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Eli M. Silk is a Ph.D. candidate in the Cognitive Studies in Education program and a Graduate Student Researcher at the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh. He received his B.A. in Computer Science at Swarthmore College in 2001. His current research focuses on the role of mathematics in helping K-12 students better understand and design physical systems.

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Ross Higashi Carnegie Mellon University

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Ross Higashi is a Robotics Education Specialist at Carnegie Mellon University's National Robotics Engineering Center. He graduated in 2007 with a B.S. in Logic and Computation from Carnegie Mellon University, and is now engaged in the research and development of STEM curricula using classroom robotics technologies and game-like systems.

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Christian D. Schunn University of Pittsburgh

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Christian D. Schunn is an Associate Professor of Professor of Psychology, Intelligent Systems, and Learning Sciences and Policy at the University of Pittsburgh. He received his Ph.D. in Psychology from Carnegie Mellon in 1995. His research ranges from cognitive/social psychology studies of science/engineering and connections to classroom science instruction to studies of peer feedback in science and instruction.

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Resources for Robot Competition Success Investigating the Value of Using Math in Engineering DesignBackgroundRobot competitions are an increasingly popular context for engaging K-12 students inengineering. A primary goal of these competitions is to build students’ interests and skills inengineering. Prior research on a high school robot competition identified a teams’ use ofmathematics in their solution process as a predictor of competition success (Titus, Schunn,Walthall, Chiu, & Ramani, 2008). This aligns well with undergraduate level (Cardella & Atman,2007) and authentic engineering design (Gainsburg, 2006) in which mathematics is a keyelement. But there are open questions about the frequency of math use in these K-12 settings andunder what conditions and for what level of students math use contributes positively to a team’ssuccess. The present study identifies opportunities and barriers for using math in a middle andelementary school level robot competition.Purpose (Hypothesis)K-12 students are often not fluent in mathematics and so using math in their design process mayhinder their design success. Further, the nature of the competition tasks may not reward mathuse. We hypothesize that these barriers to math use do exist and that they contribute to manyteams choosing not to use math in their solutions. However, we hypothesize also that teamschoosing to use math in spite of these barriers can exhibit positive benefits from doing so.Design/MethodsThis is an exploratory study of middle and elementary school level robotics competition.Competition scores were used as measures of engineering success. Interviews assessed whetherteams used math in their design solutions. Sixteen teams were interviewed using a structuredquestionnaire on the day of the competition. Four of those teams were followed in greater depthusing survey instruments measuring ability to use math in robot transfer problems and attitudestoward robotics and math. These surveys were administered soon after the competition scenariowas released (9 weeks prior the competition event) and in the weeks immediately following thecompetition. These measures assessed whether a team’s participation in the competition,including whether they used math in their process, impacted outcomes beyond competitionsuccess.ResultsOnly a few teams used math explicitly in their design solutions. The use of math was found tohave highly variable relationship with design success, with highest and lowest scoring teams inthe competition having used math. Regardless of whether math use led to design success, mathuse did lead to improved use of math on the transfer test. Further, even where math use did notlead to success in the competition, it was observed to improve students’ interest in math and inrobots as well as their views about the value of math for robots.ConclusionsEducational outcomes in the context of engineering design activities in K-12 settings couldbenefit by explicitly encouraging teams to make use of math in their solution process. Thisbenefit may be enhancing design outcomes and beyond. Suggestions for the design of robotASEE 2011 Submission Robot Competitions 1competitions that better encourage use of mathematics, and the benefits that result from such use,are proposed.ReferencesCardella, M. E., & Atman, C. J. (2007). Engineering Students’ Mathematical Thinking: In the Wild and with a Lab-based Task. Paper presented at the American Society for Engineering Education Annual Meeting.Gainsburg, J. (2006). The mathematical modeling of structural engineers. Mathematical Thinking and Learning, 8(1), 3-36.Titus, N., Schunn, C. D., Walthall, C., Chiu, G., & Ramani, K. (2008). What design processes predict better design outcomes? The case of robotics teams. Paper presented at the Seventh International Symposium on Tools and Methods of Competitive Engineering (TMCE 2008).ASEE 2011 Submission Robot Competitions 2

Silk, E. M., & Higashi, R., & Schunn, C. D. (2011, June), Resources for Robot Competition Success: Assessing Math Use in Grade-School-Level Engineering Design Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC. 10.18260/1-2--18758

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