The Robotics Science Class in 5 minutes or less

Blog Post from Luke Laurie’s Teacher Blog:

My Robotics science class was the focus of a five minute presentation I recently did at Microsoft’s Mountain View facility, as a Semifinalist for the STEMposium competition, on March 12, 2011. Below are the slides from the presentation, and the script of my remarks.

My name is Luke Laurie. Today I’m going to tell you about the Robotics Science Class that I’ve been teaching for seven years.

Let me tell you a few things about myself.

Science Teacher 13 years -El Camino Junior High in Santa Maria, CA I teach a student population who are mostly English Language Learners, and almost all live in poverty. My school is not unlike many schools in California.

MESA Advisor 13 years -MESA is a statewide program focused on hands-on activities and college attainment in Mathematics, Engineering, and Science

RoboChallenge Director 10 years -A collaborative regional program funded in part by grants from UCSB, providing robotics materials, competition rules, audio-visual and web-based resources, and teacher support to several schools.

Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow- in the U.S. House of Representatives with Congressman Mike Honda, where I worked for a year on Education and Science Policy

and… I Still play LEGOs

From all of my experience in various STEM programs and STEM education policy, it is clear to me that

STEM must be a part of the core curriculum.

In our schools:

We teach science

And we teach Math

but our students need to know more. We need to ensure that they all have opportunities to explore the concepts of technology and engineering too.

To me, it’s artificial to teach Science without integrating technology, engineering, and mathematics. That’s why I created the Robotics Science Class.


Kids need more STEM experiences and they need to begin them at a young age to have meaningful impact on their lives.

To change the face of STEM, we need to remove the barriers that keep STEM out of reach for most of our students.

The best STEM education programs don’t require high costs or major sacrifices, nor steep qualifications to participate. Good STEM education needs to be easy to access.

Unfortunately, too often, STEM programs don’t reach the student populations that need them the most, and target their efforts only at small teams in after school settings, or to select students during summer programs.

We do have a way to reach all students with high quality STEM education. We have our public schools. And in our schools we need to look at what we’re doing, and make STEM an integral part of our curriculum, and we must implement policies to provide schools with the technical resources, and training they need.

By making my class open to all students, during the school day, and part of the core curriculum, I have enabled hundreds of kids from disadvantaged backgrounds to gain STEM skills and experience they might not otherwise have had.

My students learn that there are tremendous career opportunities for people with STEM skills, and STEM skills are becoming increasingly important to all careers.

The Robotics Science Class integrates California 8th grade physical science standards with the design, construction, and programming of autonomous robots for a variety of fun and interesting challenges.

Students are learning all the California State Standards for Science, including conceptual physics, chemistry, and astronomy, while also learning to use computers and robotics materials as creative tools to solve complex problems.

The Robotics Science Class adds technology and engineering to the science curriculum in a manner that is effective and efficient.

The class primarily uses low cost, durable, flexible, and easy to use LEGO Mindstorms robotics materials, but we’ve used other materials too.

Some of our challenges have included Tug O’War, Sumo, Linefollowing, Robotic Soccer, and Robotic Exploration.

Students learn computer programming concepts using an object-based programming environment where they aren’t stuck dealing with syntax errors and arcane symbols, and instead can focus on the logic of their programs and how to use the sensors and motors to control their robots.

Robotics is a great way to bring all of the aspects of STEM together. Kids love robots, and the idea of working on them is highly motivating. I believe that with more classes like my Robotics Science Class, we will vastly improve STEM education in California.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak to you today.

If you wish more information on my class or other STEM work I do, please send me an email, or visit my website or blog.

Thank you.


The R2 Project Part 1

Blog Post from Luke Laurie’s Teacher Blog:

My son received an R2-D2 aquarium as a gift a while back, but we never had it set up with fish. After siting around for a while as a decoration, I got the idea of putting some mechanical and electronic components into it and turning it into a robot. After all, I teach a robotics science class, and have a lot of LEGOs and other parts lying around. By doing this work around my students, I could show them a thing or two about design and troubleshooting a robot project like this.

To start, I needed the thing to be able to move, and I decided that it would be most fun if he could be remotely controlled. So I got out some VEX robotics materials that were going unused, and set about designing a driving base to match the R2 shell.

I started with a design that had large enough wheels to be pretty quick, but could still carry significant weight. I used some LEGO wheels for the front, which worked OK, but they had to slide around when R2 turned, and would most likely get stuck on carpet. The rear wheels were also too large to fit inside the R2 feet, so they wouldn’t do.

Deciding that the rear wheels were two big, I switched to smaller wheels that had about 1/2 the circumference. If I attached these directly to the motor in the same way as the larger wheels were connected, my robot would cut its speed in 1/2. That would be too slow for my taste.

So I put a couple of gears on there- a larger one with about 60 teeth attached to the motor, and a smaller one with about 30 teeth attached to the wheel axle. Bingo- the robot speed was right back up to the same speed as with the larger wheels, I just lose a little energy and add a little noise because of the gears.


My STEMposium Entry- The Robotics Science Class

Blog post from Luke Laurie’s Teacher Blog:

I just found out about the STEMposium, a little late. Their website has information about what is sure to be an exciting event for STEM education in California. I’ve recorded a 1 minute video which I’ve submitted as an entry.

See more about the STEMposium here:

Media from the Einstein Summit

Blog Post from Luke Laurie’s Teacher Blog:

I was fortunate enough to have participated in the Einstein Fellowship 20th Anniversary Summit, where I met with friends new and old for the purpose of improving STEM education nationwide. Many photos from this event have been posted on the web. Some links to photos, video, and the Einstein Summit Report are below.

Me and Art: The Big Lebofsky

Making a Point on the STEm education Panel

Me and my kids at the welcome reception.

Mad scientist turned stern moderator.


Tons more media:

Picasa Web Album

Picasa- whole group photos

Photos from the Wilson Center

Video of part of the Summit from the Wilson Center

The Einstein Summit Report (.pdf)


The MESA Video

I’ve been a MESA advisor at El Camino Junior High as long as I’ve been a teacher; 13 years. Around the year 2000, I put together a video of how cool MESA is, and used it to get kids excited about careers in engineering and other technical fields. We’ve had hundreds of students in our MESA program over the years. Many have gone into technical fields, and many have gone to college, and all have benefited from the diverse experiences we offer them. Below is a link to that video. MESA is a great program, and should be a part of every great school. MESA is run out of the University of California Office of the President.


For more info on MESA- see the website.


Policies to Improve STEM Education: Focus on K-6

Blog Post at Luke Laurie’s Teacher Blog:

The following was delivered as my opening remarks during the STEM education Policy Panel during the Einstein Fellowship 20th Anniversary Summit, which occured at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars on June 27 and 28, 2010.

While I believe in the importance of STEM at all levels, I believe we should focus our policies on improving STEM education at the elementary school level.

We need high quality science education in every elementary school, in every elementary classroom, for every child, regardless of language ability, disability, or income. There is no policy that will have as significant or far reaching effects as one that would ensure that all students have a strong foundation of hands-on science and technical experiences, practice with logical and critical thinking skills, and a knowledge base of facts about the world around them.

The fact of the matter is, that the K-6 STEM education pipeline is like the natural gas pipeline Sarah Palin brags about. It doesn’t exist. There are places where great science instruction is occurring for young students. These places are exceptions. We need a rule. We have been putting some modest resources into Math achievement in elementary schools, or at least test score improvement, but science, technology, and pre-engineering lessons have largely gone the way of the dinosaur, the Pontiac, and safe offshore drilling.

We will not be successful if we just impose science curriculum or science standards and testing on elementary schools without considering the workforce that would implement it, our elementary teachers; and the resources they have available for STEM, which, by and large, do not exist.

Our elementary teachers, for whom I have great respect, are, on a whole, unprepared and lack sufficient resources to effectively teach science. Those that do have the skill and ambition to teach it often must do so in spite of administrative directives. The increased emphasis on Mathematics and Language Arts has greatly limited the time teachers have to devote to science, not to mention art, music, physical education and other subjects.

Thus, an effective policy would need to train current elementary teachers, improve teacher preparation programs in STEM, provide specialists to coach and teach science in elementary schools, would mandate that comprehensive STEM instruction would occur and that sufficient time would be devoted to it, and would also provide the financial resources to bring science materials and labs to every school.

My experience working in the House of Representatives with Congressman Mike Honda enlightened me to some jurisdictional issues that can act as impediments to improving STEM education.   Perhaps other panelists can enlighten me as to how these issues have evolved in the 3 years since my Fellowship and the beginning of the Obama Administration.

The problem goes like this: I was working on legislative concepts that would best be described as fitting the topic: Science Education, not unlike the policies I just described.

When I discussed these concepts with staff on the Education and Labor Committee, or other knowledgeable professionals, I was told that Science Education was the jurisdiction Science Committee. Indeed, when I looked through the budget for the Department of Education, the only program I found related to science was the Math and Science Partnerships, which certainly don’t impact all schools for what I had in mind, and usually did not impact elementary schools. Also, if you searched the Department of Education website at that time you would find no resources related to science, only links to outside organizations.

Taking these legislative ideas over to the science committee produced similar results. “Oh, you want to do something with K-12, well that’s the Education Committee.” “But this is Science education.” “Oh, well can we turn this into a grant from NSF?”

It seems that the standard path for impacting K-12 STEM education from the Federal level is to create grant programs and other outreach programs that are administered through colleges and universities, and indirectly impact a small number of students in K-12. The vast majority of elementary students are not impacted by such programs.

This is an issue of national significance. We can’t rely on piecemeal grants, small scale experiments, inconsistent industry partnerships, charter schools, or blind faith to ensure that STEM education will happen everywhere in the United States. We need a bold, clear, national policy that will make it happen.

Policy Recommendations on the 20th Anniversary of the Einstein Fellowship

Today Albert Einstein Fellows will be visiting the offices of Members of the House of Representatives and the Senate to discuss the importance of having teachers involved in public policy. After the conclusion of our Summit at the Wilson Center, we developed a one page document of policy recommendations to distribute. The text of that document follows.

The Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellows, some of the nation’s leading educators, gathered in Washington, DC on June 28-29, 2010, for a 20th Anniversary Summit.  Hosted by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the Summit brought together more than 80 current and former Einstein Fellows along with distinguished guest speakers from the White House, Federal agencies, national education organizations, and the U.S. Congress.  The goal of the Summit was to generate recommendations to inform and improve science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. The Summit covered a variety of educational issues, including national curriculum standards, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and educational equity.

Recommendations of the Einstein Fellows:

  • Support initiatives to enable school systems to implement innovative teaching practices in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
  • Increase funding for Pre-K-12 education, especially programs that impact each child as opposed to competitive grants.  Federal funding is vital to the maintenance and development of STEM programs in states and districts.
  • Establish national standards for science education and support provisions in the reauthorization of ESEA that give equal treatment to science as to mathematics and language arts. Science knowledge and skills, as part of a comprehensive STEM approach, are vital for all students and provide 21st Century workforce skills, promote national security and global competitiveness.
  • Include K-12 teachers, such as Einstein Fellows, in the formulation of professional development or curriculum.  The real world experience of classroom teachers is an overlooked asset when new programs are developed.
  • Base school and student assessment on multiple measures and formative assessments.
  • Create and fund a program to place science specialists to teach and coach in elementary schools.  Elementary schools can benefit from the presence of competent STEM teachers who also have skills in working with K-12 students.  They can teach STEM and also model effective strategies as instructional coaches.
  • Support legislation that encourages research-based instruction and teacher training.
  • Support federal programs to purchase science equipment and provide STEM training to teachers at the K-6 grade levels.  This will enable the delivery of inquiry-based, hands-on science experiences.
  • Establish guidelines to ensure all administrators are competent and knowledgeable in STEM education.  Student success and instructional quality depends on strong school leadership.
  • Support initiatives and funding to enable states and districts to lengthen the school day or school year.