What would it take to explore an alien spacecraft at the bottom of a lake and rescue 20 abducted town folks before the National Guard steps in?

It’s the stuff of the “X-Files,” but the lessons help push skills students are learning today through STEM education in Arizona.

At this year’s National Underwater Robotics Challenge, held at Chandler High School in early June, teams of students and adults were asked to create a robot that could dive into a high school swimming pool, maneuver into a submerged “space craft” and retrieve objects set around the “X-Files” story theme.

But there’s no science fiction in what the participants – especially the elementary and high school students – were learning.

All around Arizona, there’s been a push for more science, technology, engineering and math education, known as STEM. One group behind that is Arizona Promoters of Applied Science in Education (APASE), which runs Arizona’s National Underwater Robotics Challenge.

“We want to develop an interest in STEM fields early on. With (the National Underwater Robotics Challenge) NURC, students see the applicability of what they learned in the classroom in a hands-on environment. They also develop discipline, problem-solving skills, design and engineering techniques. There is little to no design and engineering in regular curriculum and NURC provides that experience, even to the little ones,” said Carmen Cornejo, a board member of APASE.

Students at the robotics competition recognize that.

Triyiadela Rosa, 11, a student at Chandler’s Bologna Elementary School, said the competition was, “good exposure” to science. Plus, “It’s something new and we’ve never done it before.”

Chandler High School student Brian Mogollon, 17, not only participates in his school’s team, but mentors the younger children through Chandler-based Si Se Puede, which promotes non-violence through community participation and educational activities, like its year-round science programs.

“That’s the idea,” Mogollon said during the competition, “to get the younger kids into technology. I get to work and teach them about what I learn. I liked to build LEGOs when I was a kid. Now that I’m older, I get to work with higher skills.”

Those higher skills are what could lead to college and employment in some hard-to-fill science and engineering jobs. But they can also lend themselves to any field, just by boosting students’ enthusiasm for learning.

“You can see how excited those kids are and how excited they are about what they’re doing,” said Darcy Renfro, vice president of the Arizona Science Foundation and coordinator for the Arizona STEM Network. “They’re dealing with significantly complex problems … It’s fascinating to see that level of energy. That’s what we’re trying to replicate in places all over the state.”

Renfro and her group are trying to encourage schools to bring STEM education into the classrooms, either through after-school activities like robotics and LEGO clubs or through full integration into the curriculum.

Arizona lawmakers recently helped create a STEM diploma. East Valley schools – Gilbert’s Highland High School and Mesa’s Red Mountain High School – plan to launch the program in the fall. Chandler Unified School District’s Perry High School is launching its own STEM diploma.

Money to run these programs can be hard to come by, said Cornejo of Arizona Promoters of Applied Science in Education. The Medtronic Foundation and Si Se Puede Foundation helped put on the robotics competition, but even some of the high school students pulled money out of their own pockets to pay for the robots.

Renfro said the foundations and the Arizona STEM Network are working to get funding to start programs around the state to show how STEM integration can work.

There are glimpses of where it can ultimately lead.

“We have kids who go to university because of this,” said Cornejo. “If they didn’t have this, they wouldn’t even fathom the concept (of college). It’s the exposure that really transforms.”

As far as that robotics competition and attempts to rescue the “abducted” people, the older student competition was won by Tempe Union High School District’s Desert Vista High School, followed by a NASA space grant-backed ASU team and the Chandler High School team. Students from Chandler’s Frye Elementary School won the “light” division for the younger students.

Contact writer: (480) 898-6549 or mreese@evtrib.com

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