In 2001, The National Science Foundation introduced the acronym STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and began a campaign to raise awareness about the growing need for a strong science and technology workforce. Despite this national focus, not much has changed. For example, compared to when the study began, there are increased rates of minority, female, special education, and low-income students who are not choosing STEM pathways. This fact is especially alarming considering most children born in the United States today are nonwhite; half are born female, and three-quarters qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, according to the National Center on Educational Statistics. Eric Frauwirth, administrator for Career and Technical Education (CTE) for the New Hampshire Department of Education, believes part of the problem is a lack of career-driven education. In the current educational structure, students are not finding out about STEM careers early enough, he says, particularly in core classes like math. “We need to find ways to ensure all students consider a career in STEM, not just certain students who have role models at home or who have been cherry-picked to take STEM classes,” he says.

Part of the problem is that math often plays the role of STEM pathway gatekeeper. Results from the 2019 nationwide National Assessment of Educational Progress test show only 34 percent of eighth-grade students achieved at or above proficient scores. Data from California reveal that almost 50 percent of students repeated a math class between eighth and 10th grade, and more than 60 percent showed no evidence of improved comprehension after repeating. In 2019, fewer than 50 percent of students in high schools across New Hampshire achieved proficiency. Even though employers report wanting students who can work in teams and solve problems, many students who have those skills are stumbling in math and shying away from STEM careers.

Robot Algebra: When Will I Ever Use This in Real Life?

Christopher Knoetig, head CTE teacher at Nashua High School North in Nashua, NH, spent a year beginning in 2018 working with a team of high school engineering and math teachers from CTE and traditional classrooms—along with robot designers from Robomatter Inc. and math and manufacturing college professors—to create a class that fused algebra and career exploration together in a meaningful way. “We hypothesized that if we could teach algebraic topics in hands-on, relevant ways using robots as manipulatives, we could impact students’ attitudes toward math and help more students realize they might have an aptitude for a career in STEM,” Knoetig says. They piloted the class in 2019–20.

“Basically, our goal with robot algebra was to try and remove the need for students to ever ask that question—when will I ever use this in real life?” Knoetig says.

There are currently 18 students enrolled in robot algebra at the school. Knoetig hopes people will immediately recognize a different approach when they walk into the robot algebra classroom. There are posters depicting young women engaged in STEM activities on the walls, an interactive touch-screen TV, and desks that can be rearranged easily. “We wanted to give students a very different high-tech experience—more like they would get in a CTE room than in a traditional math room,” Knoetig says.

Both the physical space and the curriculum were purposefully designed using the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). The robot algebra team employed this approach because they wanted to create a learning environment that facilitated the mastery of math and supported the process of learning itself—one that reduced barriers to learning and delivered just-in-time supports. The goal with the classroom and the curriculum was to increase accessibility and engagement for all students, so even novice or fearful learners could find success, Knoetig says. (See http://udlguidelines.cast.org for more information.)

Robot algebra started with a short video on an experimental robot designed to scan crops, collect genetic data, measure traits, and identify common diseases. After a brief discussion around what kinds of sensors robots would need to do this work autonomously, Knoetig broke the class into groups and assigned them to one of four stations around the room.

At one station, students worked in teams to program their robot—a VEX Clawbot—to move independently on a field and collect data. For this exercise, students were encouraged to think of the field as a hazardous site, reinforcing the concept that robots are utilized for jobs that are considered dull, dirty, or dangerous. At the second station, students reviewed relevant prior math concepts such as ratios and unit conversions; at a third, they practiced new concepts such as linear functions. At the final station, students used the data they gathered with the Clawbots, along with additional data provided by the instructor, to make mathematical models.

Initial feedback from students in robot algebra has been unanimously and overwhelmingly positive. Students report being engaged by the robots and say the class is a fun, effective way to study math concepts. Typical student comments include, “Robot algebra is working for me because it is hands-on and it engages me in the work. It is also fun and new. I think the robots are helping me want to pay attention so I can learn more about the robots and math.”

The concept of robot algebra has resonated with school districts across the country. Steve Vancil, mathematics specialist, mentor, and coach at David Douglas High School in Portland, OR, heard about the program and traveled with a team to learn more. “Finding ways to make mathematics come alive and have some relevance is important for students,” he says. Robot algebra offers an opportunity “to be a part of something that has the potential to interest and inspire another group of students—many of which would not be nearly as engaged,” he notes.

The Shift: Core Math Credits in CTE

Most schools today do not allow students to earn core credits in CTE classrooms. Robot algebra shifts that paradigm. Students enrolled in the course aren’t earning a “CTE math experience credit, they are earning their core Algebra I credit,” explains Knoetig.

While parents, students, and some administrators at the local and state levels were excited about students earning core credit in CTE, there was some trepidation, Knoetig says. Dan Legro, the school’s interim vice principal and a math teacher, says he was skeptical at first. He had heard about other schools trying similar approaches with varied success and admitted he wasn’t sure how it would go. However, while helping design the robot algebra curriculum, something changed. “I realized we really had something very unique,” Legro says. “As I started designing the curriculum around linear functions and systems of equations to model data in real life using robots, I realized it could be done and it was going to potentially be really good for students.”

“By contextualizing any core learning in hands-on classrooms like CTE, the educational experience is made significantly richer,” Frank Edelblut, New Hampshire’s commissioner of education says. “Students should be able to earn core credits because they met core competencies. It’s about what you learn, not where you learn it.”

Vancil sees the connection between CTE and math as a positive. “For our school, CTE is a pathway to graduation, and in most cases, math is the subject that is the barrier to earning a diploma. We think [robot algebra] is a unique opportunity. If done well, this could provide options for many students who may have had limited success in math or for students who want to find a more defined path as they move through school. If we can provide a setting where math and CTE are connected, then it is a win for everyone involved.”

Enabling students to earn core credits such as Algebra I in a CTE-like classroom flips the concept of prerequisites and feeder classes and opens up room in students’ schedules, Frauwirth notes. With robot algebra, a core class becomes a feeder course for a CTE pathway that immediately introduces students to careers in STEM. Since nearly every student takes Algebra I, this approach would expose more students to careers in STEM. “We see [robot algebra] as a template for embedding core credits in other CTE fields,” Frauwirth adds. “Imagine the connections that could be made between learning and careers if this spider-webbed out and became standard across schools everywhere.”

Amanda Bastoni, EdD, is an educational research scientist at the Center for Applied Special Technology—an educational nonprofit dedicated to removing barriers to learning. Previously, she served as a CTE director and teacher with more than 20 years of experience in K–12 educational leadership, journalism, and business. Bastoni was named the 2019 New Hampshire CTE Leader of the Year.

Sidebar: CTE, UDL, and Funding

As a former CTE teacher and CTE director, I was passionate about robot algebra because I saw the success that students had learning core concepts in CTE classrooms. Although we knew our goal with robot algebra was big—to design an innovative class that would break down the dichotomy between CTE and “core” learning—we also knew it was important.

We used Universal Design for Learning (UDL) to drive the creation of the class because it helped us create a supportive and inclusive environment and because it is endorsed by all major federal policy governing K–12 and higher education, including the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act (Perkins V). UDL helped us open the door to learning and funding. For example, Perkins V mandates that programs spend funds to integrate academic skills into CTE programs, support career exploration, and expose students—especially students in special populations—to high-skill, high-wage, in-demand occupations. Through that UDL framework and with robot algebra as the vehicle, we hope to expose all students to careers in STEM and ensure that all students—including learners with disabilities, students from low-income communities, English-language learners, and female students—learn math.

At the Center for Applied Special Technology, the company that created UDL, I have the opportunity to work with schools across the country to develop programs, classes, technology, and policies—like robot algebra—that are innovative and inclusive. Visit www.cast.org for more information. —AB