4-H Receives $2.5 Million Robotics Grant

(Media-Newswire.com) – LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska 4-H is emerging as a national leader in science education, thanks to a nearly $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation that will take its robotics and GPS/GIS curriculum national.

The new grant, titled “Scale-Up: National Robotics in 4-H: Workforce Skills for the 21st Century,” will allow 4-H to expand its current program, offered mostly to Nebraska youth, to youth from across the United States, said Bradley Barker, University of Nebraska-Lincoln 4-H science and technology specialist and one of the project’s leaders.

The idea, Barker said, is to get young people excited about science, technology, engineering and mathematics, not just now but for the rest of their lives.

“Robotics is a great integration of all those concepts, all those academic areas,” Barker said. “We make it fun for them. They’re building, they’re programming, they’re hands-on.”

Elbert Dickey, dean and director of UNL Extension, said the program is an excellent example of how 4-H prepares participants for the future.

“By focusing on such key elements of science, technology, engineering and mathematics we’re really helping prepare participants for the workplace of the 21st Century,” Dickey said. “This really is what 4-H is all about.”

John Owens, Harlan vice chancellor of the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, agreed.

“This is such an exciting project. This type of knowledge is critical to the forward movement of our nation,” Owens said. “Through this project youth can gain the confidence to know they can indeed do science – and enjoy it. We look forward to the progress of this project with great enthusiasm.”

Targeted at students in grades 5-9, the 4-H Robotics and Geospatial Project is built on a 40-hour summer camp experience that features hands-on activities that teach principles of robotics and geospatial technologies in promoting learning in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Following the summer camps, participants go back to their 4-H clubs and after-school programs for monthly meetings to build on what they learn. Then, in year two, they attend an advanced summer camp, followed by eight more months of activities in their home communities.

During summer 2007, the project was piloted with two camps, followed by formation of several pilot clubs. During summer 2008, 150 youth attended six camps, and 13 clubs will meet during the 2008-09 school year.

This new five-year grant will expand the curriculum’s reach, first in the North Central Region, then nationally.

“This type of technology is exciting enough that once you get people at any age working with it, they want to learn more,” said Viacheslav Adamchuk, associate professor in biological systems engineering and the project’s other principal investigator.

Research results from the pilot camps show the program works: Students who participated in the five-day camp last summer showed a 30 percent increase in science, technology, engineering and math learning. Also, their attitudes toward those disciplines improved from 3.88 to 4.10 on a five-point scale.

“It is so cool … to watch these kids get so excited about making those robots do what they want them to do,” said Gwen Nugent, who conducted those evaluations. Nugent, who’s with the College of Education and Human Sciences’ Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families and Schools, will continue to evaluate the curriculum.

Barker said plans are to build a new, affordable educational robotics kit with an integrated GPS chip receiver for the national project. Bing Chen, professor of computer and electronic engineering, and his team will lead the development of the new robotics platform based on work he’s done in his classroom.

Chen is recognized as a national leader in this area. Last year, he received a $3 million NSF grant for an Omaha-based team that’s using small robots to help middle school students learn science, technology, engineering and math.

Working with its partners – the National 4-H Council and National After School Association – Nebraska 4-H will contract with several trainers that will train others to deliver the program. Initially, that will be 40 trainers in each of three regions.

The first step will be to hire a project manager and instructional designer, Barker said.

The curriculum will be taught in both 4-H clubs and after-school programs.

“There’s a shortage of scientists and engineers. We’re trying to have kids go through this program, be successful and realize … ‘I can do science,'” Barker said.

Curriculum organizers are especially interested in attracting girls to science, he added. “They tend to self-select out” of science as they enter college.

“The NSF is anxious to get kids excited about science, technology, engineering and math,” Nugent said.

Nebraska 4-H is part of University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension, a division of the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

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