Students Reflect on the UC Davis C-STEM Program

Robotics makes math concepts easier to grasp

Mario Piombo, Director, Innovation
Published on May 22, 2018

In 2011, a group of 8th grade girls and a determined middle school teacher in the Napa Valley Unified School District embarked on a journey that has led to math curriculum changes at several schools, a first place prize at California’s statewide robotics competition, and two Teachers of the Year awards.

There are now five schools — American Canyon Middle School, Redwood Middle School, American Canyon High, Valley Oak High, and Vintage High — that have adopted the UC Davis C-STEM program — a curriculum that combines algebra, geometry, coding, and robotics. Instead of sequentially learning Algebra I then Geometry as an eighth grader or freshman-sophomore (like we did when we were in school), these students master these mathematical concepts by programming robots to perform specific tasks.

As we approach the upcoming annual C-STEM competition on May 19, 2018, we thought it would be worthwhile to meet up with these pioneers — three of the original robotics students — to get their assessments and recommendations about this program. Here are a few of their key takeaways.

Robotics makes math more fun, not harder

All of the girls described in amazement that they didn’t actually know they were performing mathematical functions when they started learning to code the robots. One stated laughing, “Someone asked me what kind of math was I doing. I was like “I’m doing math?””

The reality is that when students are programming a robot, they don’t realize they are acquiring math concepts. Instead of memorizing formulas and completing a set of problems, they use trial and error — changing lines, angles, degrees, and numbers — and test new ideas to instruct the robots to finish a set of predefined exercises. They are applying the concepts of rate and speed, adjusting variables, and understanding linear relationships. They are collaborating in teams and having fun because they want to complete the challenge.

Robotics builds confidence and perseverance

Grasping mathematical algorithms by applying them changes the game entirely. Students in robotics may complete only two or three problems in a 90-minute period, but the reality is they are doing many, many iterations and revisions until they develop the formula that they need. Beyond understanding math algorithms and coding, the girls explained that robotics helped them to push through their failures and utilize that skill in other classes when they hit obstacles. The satisfaction they got when making the robot do what they wanted, or getting to the stage they wanted, gave them a great feeling of accomplishment.

The girls also stated that they finally understand math and don’t get as frustrated by it; and, this lack of frustration is evidenced in other aspects of their lives.

“Robotics taught me to realize that one mistake isn’t the end of the world — I just need to go back and fix it.” Another said, “I’m actually excited to go to math now. And, if I’m done, I can help other students who are having trouble.” And finally, “Robotics has helped me prepare for the future, beyond just the math. Making mistakes and fixing them helped me know I can persevere and deal with failures.”

Robotics opens doors

The success of this first class has gained notoriety and the girls have been invited to speak at CUE conferences, tour businesses like Autodesk, teach other girls in Girl Scouts, and become UC Davis camp counselors. They will also be demonstrating their skills at this year’s Auction Napa Valley, the celebrated wine charity event.

As important, it has changed the girls’ goals for their futures. They stated that they want to pursue careers in computer science, engineering, and bio-engineering fields. Robotics has given them a vision for what they want to do in life and where they want to apply to college.

Advice for future robotics students

The girls provided great advice for students coming up the ranks:

  • Start at a younger age. These girls started coding in 6th grade, but felt that if elementary school kids could start coding, imagine what their potential would be getting into high school or college!
  • Don’t be afraid to try robotics and be proud of it. Initially people would ask the girls, “You’re in robotics”? And they would say, “No”. But now, they express how glad they are they were in the class. Their advice? “Definitely try it and see how you like it because you never know where it will lead you, and stay proud of it.”
  • Never give up. There were so many times in middle school the girls were struggling with coding and they would want to skip ahead to the next challenge. They stated, “Keep trying. You’ll get it!”
  • Stay supportive of everyone. Find a group of people or those involved and support each other. The girls have gotten super close through programming. At first they felt like, “I don’t want anyone to see my program or watch over my shoulders; what if they judge me?” Now they are super supportive of each other and asking “Is this right?” or “Can you help me out?” They encourage others to, “Stick together.”

After the success of the initial pilot at American Canyon Middle School, NapaLearns invested in the subsequent growth of the program to five other schools. To learn more about it, check out these videos:

Mya Wright, 8th Grader at American Canyon Middle School

Katrina and Malaysia made a video about their C-STEM journey