Robots Rock and STEM Rules

May 2, 2013

This is a special guest post by Patrick Konopnicki, Ed.D. Dr. Konopnicki is the Director of Technical and Career Education, Virginia Beach City Public Schools. This post can also be found on the blog of the Institute for a Competitive Workforce.


As part of a growing national movement to prioritize science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education, Virginia Beach City Public Schools (VBCPS) began a targeted effort to improve the quality, access, and real-world relevance of STEM education across all grade levels. Now in its fifth year, the STEM Robotics Challenge (SRC) offers an afterschool program called “Robots Rock and STEM Rules” in 50 elementary, middle, and high schools. Impressively, 29% of participants are female and 48% are minority students, proving that the program is enticing to those who are traditionally underrepresented in the field. While more than 700 students are currently enrolled, organizers hope to offer SRC to every student in every VBCPS school in the near future.

This year’s challenge focuses on sustainability, challenging participants to build a robot that can extract the most beach pollution within a specified period of time. With Virginia Beach’s close proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, students must solve a problem that is real and relevant to their community. Students must use NASA’s eight-step engineering design process, which teaches them how to systematically solve problems and exposes them to methodologies already used in the STEM field. Finally, students must chronicle their experience in an electronic portfolio, which allows them to use technology to reinforce the literacy lessons they learn during the school day. 

For many students, SRC has become their favorite part of the school day. Parents of elementary school participants note that the robotics challenge is their children’s favorite dinner table topic, suggesting that the most stimulating lessons can happen after the school day is over. One SRC middle school teacher recently heard one of his students say, “We’re learning today in class what we did just the other day in our robot engineering design process.”  The teacher was excited about the STEM academic connections beginning to emerge and even more excited by the students’ enthusiasm, adding, “They seem to walk to class and run to the SRC after school meetings.”

Business partnerships are essential to the program’s success. SRC is an excellent way businesses and corporations in Virginia Beach can be directly involved in their local school system. SAIC, one of the program’s biggest donors, has led the way for other companies and organizations such as STIHL, InMotion Hosting, Electronic Systems, Radio Shack, Virginia Beach Economic Development, WRS Engineering, Rotary Club of Hampton Roads Foundation, as well as NASA and the U.S. Navy, to become active participants. Partners help the program by donating money and materials, volunteering engineering expertise, scoring E-portfolios, judging the event, and, most importantly, providing feedback to students. By fostering participants' interest and creativity, businesses are helping ensure that future graduates will be equipped with the knowledge and desire necessary to pursue a career in the STEM field.