More than 140 teachers from around the world gathered in Butler County last week to learn how to use robotics to teach math, science and technology.
"Hopefully, I'll be able to take what I've learned here and use it to excite my students to learn about engineering and [computer-aided design]," said Ken Hilke, an instructor at Butler County Vocational-Technical School who attended the conference presented by the Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Academy at Butler County Community College.
Science, technology and math teachers all can use robotics in the classroom as a learning tool, said Robin Shoop, director of Carnegie Mellon's robotics academy.
"It's very tactile," he said. "Kids can touch it, feel it and do things with it."
Those attending the conference, held Wednesday through Friday, participated in hands-on activities using Lego, Vex and controllers made by other companies. They also had the opportunity to share ideas and learning experiences with each other.
Robotics brings all kinds of technology together, making the possibilities of how to use it limitless, Mr. Hilke said.
"I see robotics as an avenue to teach the same things I've always taught and maybe to expand on them a bit," he said.
Prompted by the current shortage of qualified engineers in Western Pennsylvania coupled with the boom in the types of industry that require engineering skills in our area, Mr. Hilke said he hoped to use the technology to interest students in pursuing engineering careers.
Dana Aucoin, a middle-school teacher at St. Anne's School of Annapolis who attended the conference, said she hoped to be able to use what she learned to get more girls interested in a new elective at her school called Discover Engineering.
"We don't get them excited enough about the maths and sciences," she said. She is in charge of the new program.
Her husband, William Aucoin, also attended the conference. An engineer, he helps his wife with the program at St. Anne's.
Mrs. Aucoin said she was interested in the conference because she hoped to network with other professionals and learn new things to teach to her students. Mr. Aucoin said he is always looking for ways to keep himself current in his field, and he believed the conference was a good way to do it.
"One thing that attracted me to it was the affiliation with Carnegie Mellon," he said. "It was connecting with the people who really know a lot about robotics."
Mr. Shoop said Carnegie Mellon is working on creating a local "robotics corridor" that would include Butler County Community College, California University of Pennsylvania, Community College of Beaver County, the University of Pittsburgh's Learning Research and Development Center, and Westmoreland County Community College.
He said Carnegie Mellon hopes to reach agreements with those schools and help them create a certification program in robotics intelligence. Credits from the program could be applied to any four-year school that the colleges have articulation agreements with, including Carnegie Mellon.
Steve Catt, executive director of planning and external relations at Butler County Community College, said the college is working on putting such a program in place.
College officials are developing a curriculum for the program, which would award an associate degree to those who complete it. He said they also hope to have an agreement in place with Carnegie Mellon that would allow those credits to be transferred.
"But it's still a few years away from being ready to offer," he said.
Mr. Catt said he had high hopes for building the college's technology program to include more robotics. Mr. Shoop said Carnegie Mellon would like to help with that goal.
"There's a lot of robotic places locally, and we'd like to see Pennsylvania become a national robotics industry," he said.
In addition to the community colleges, Carnegie Mellon also plans to court high school students with a program that would allow them to earn college credits in electronics, parametric solid modeling, programming and robotic engineering.
Mr. Catt said the conference was a success and he hoped to be able to offer it again next year.
"It's an exciting conference with the diversity of people we have here," he said. "We'd love to do it again."
Shari L. Berg is a freelance writer.