'This is for all kids': Robotics program is seeing more diversity
Asked to picture a budding computer genius, most people would think of a young Steve Jobs or Bill Gates tinkering in their garages: male, white, nerdy.
But that’s changing, says Steve Goodgame, executive director of Norman-based KISS Institute for Practical Robotics.
Goodgame’s nonprofit organization, named for the acronym “Keep It Simple Students,” was founded to improve the public’s understanding of technology primarily through working with teachers and students. KIPR designs classroom curricula for elementary, middle school and high school students, that culminates in a statewide “Botball” event where students write code to maneuver robots around a challenge course.
All of the materials, curricula and professional development are provided at no cost the schools.
“The cool thing about this is because we’re engaging the classroom teachers first, we get all their kids. We get the diversity in the classroom, and we get the gender balance,” Goodgame said. “It’s not only for those who can join the Robot Club. This is for all kids.”
Among elementary students who participated in the Junior Botball Challenge last year, 57 percent were female and 43 percent were male, according to a KIPR survey. Of recognized minority students in the survey, 20 percent were Native American, 13 percent were African-American, 8 percent were Hispanic or Latino, and 2 percent Hawaiian or Pacific Islander.
For middle school and high school students who participated in the 2018 Botball competitions, 70 percent were male and 30 percent were female. Forty-one percent of minority students were Hispanic or Latino, 18 percent were Native American, 16 percent were African-American and 1 percent were Hawaiian or Pacific Islander in 2018.
“We’re seeing more diversity in Junior Botball for sure. And a lot of Native American participation,” Goodgame said. “We have a lot of girls. They absolutely love it!”
Most of the teachers at Arthur Elementary School in the Oklahoma City school district are women, said Carrie Price, the lead science and math teacher.
Price said Arthur Elementary is part of what she calls “the botball community,” with six teams of students who practice after school and then attend scrimmages and challenge competitions to apply their robotics skills. There’s a campus policy against having more boys than girls on a team.
“The girls are usually better at coding,” Price said. “The boys will have the ideas and can diagram out what they want to happen, but the girls are little bit better at writing the codes to make the bots move forward, backward, half-turn or go back to home base.”
When botball teams win challenges, the trophies are placed on campus alongside the sports trophies, Price said.
“They make a really big deal about the kids who join these teams. And the younger girls are seeing the older girls doing it.”
‘Reaching the whole world’
KIPR was founded in 1994 by a NASA scientist who did much of the pioneering work on the Mars rovers. The Junior Botball Challenge was established five years ago. In 2018, it was in 29 states, 1,000 schools, with 15,000 students,” Goodgame said.
The Botball Challenge for middle school and high school, which is a competition as opposed to a learning exercise, is incorporated into curricula in almost 40 states, five international regions and includes 30,000 students a year.
“We’re in San Diego, Albuquerque, Los Angeles … New York City,” Goodgame said. “We have new tournaments in Quatar and Hong Kong. We were already in all 13 provinces in China.”
The KIPR curricula also has been vetted and accepted by STEM-works, a learning resource for teachers.
“For a small nonprofit in Norman, we’re reaching the whole world. We should be in every school in Oklahoma,” he said.
For more information, go to www.kipr.org.