will see a significant reduction in the number of talented
individuals coming to them to learn and work.
So far, this article has focused on the STEM workforce
and education. Those, however, are not the only issues.
Regardless of who is creating the technology — or where
— its development continues to advance at a greater pace.
The growth of technology increases the need for all
people — not just those involved with the STEM workforce
— to use high tech tools for entertainment and careers; in
fact, in all facets of life. A lack of STEM knowledge today
impoverishes a person’s access to opportunity.
There are many proposed solutions for this nation’s
increased need of a STEM knowledgeable population. For
example, market forces can change the rewards for
entering STEM-related occupations. Currently, many
students take degrees in financial services because they
offer some of the best rewards to graduates. When
industry feels the need to fill more high tech roles, the
rewards for getting the training will increase. A second
recommendation is to increase every student’s STEM
How best can we create an excellent STEM education
for students? Robotics often comes to mind, since
classrooms have been using them since at least 1970. The
best use of classroom robotics is not to necessarily teach
programming skills, but to teach other content like
mathematics, science, and engineering. Classrooms can
even use robotics to teach language arts.
Robots are powerful in education for many reasons.
For one, students like robots. As a result, they become
more deeply engaged in their education. Students also like
spending time with robots. Combine depth of
engagement with time engaged and classrooms can keep
students enthralled for long periods of time. That’s good
Unlike human teachers, robots can give more students
immediate feedback. By observing the behavior of their
robot, students receive input on how closely they are
meeting educational goals. The only problem is that
sometimes the robot’s feedback can be a mystery or
Students understand that robots and programmable
microcontrollers are real world applications of STEM.
Using living examples rather than just theories helps
teachers justify educational activities to students. In
addition, because of the hands-on nature of robotics, it
helps more students learn more content by engaging both
their minds and hands.
It’s easy to see how classrooms can improve
education through the incorporation of robotic projects.
Students are more deeply engaged, get more feedback,
and learn by using realistic, hands-on applications. If
robotics has a weakness, perhaps it is that bots aren’t
quite as strong in math and science as they are in
engineering and technology. So, what if we could create a
form of robotics that incorporates more math and
Near space entered the classroom some 20 years later
than robotics. In the 1990s, near space groups like
Windtrax in Indiana, EOSS in Colorado, and Bill Brown in
Ohio and Alabama were involving students with the
launching and tracking of payloads through the use of
amateur radio and weather balloons. These groups also
helped some students develop and fly some science
experiments. However, in 2001, student access to near
space improved astronomically. That’s when Chris Kohler
of the University of Colorado, Boulder developed the
If you are a regular reader of this column, you know
that BalloonSats are self-contained science experiments
replicating satellites. BalloonSats let students design
experiments to collect data during a mission, without
being concerned about the actual launch, chase, and
recovery of their experiment. It’s very similar to having
NASA launch your satellite. You design the satellite to
meet NASA’s minimum requirements, but you don’t
concern yourself about the rocket or infrastructure that
does the launching.
Because of my 15 years of near space experience, I
decided to research the effects of a BalloonSat project in
science education. I found that the literature on this
subject is not as well developed as it is for robotics. Much
of it is descriptive in nature, describing — for example —
how schools create and maintain their programs.
So far, I have found one good study about BalloonSats
in education. In this study, Taylor University investigated
the BalloonSat’s effects on science in several arenas. The
study found that BalloonSats had the following effects on
1. Students increased their intrinsic motivation to
explore and accomplish.
2. Students increased their knowledge of how to
problem solve, prototype, evaluate, calibrate, and
3. Students increased their ability to self-monitor their
learning, to identify and correct errors, and to know
when a task was complete.
4. Students increased their near space vocabulary and
their technical knowledge of processes (like how to
launch a weather balloon).
A BALLOONSAT STUDY
My interest is in pre-college science and engineering
education. That’s because I feel that innovative programs
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