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560 Indiana Teachers Receive VEX Robots & Training

Thousands of additional students learning robotics & competing.

A new and rapidly expanding robotics program in Indiana is enabling many thousands of high school students to design and build robots—and compete in robot challenges—as part of their school curriculums. This is an exciting development because the students get to “wrench” on robot designs of their own creation even as they learn the diverse disciplines that come together in robotics—mechanical engineering, electricity, math, materials science, physics and more. This rapid expansion of robotics in Indiana schools is the result of carefully planned robotics workshops and competitions held by the Indiana Robotics Educators (IRE) in various Indiana locations throughout the year.

With financial support from the Indiana Department of Workforce Development (IDWD)—a state agency—IRE is able to provide free workshops and competitions that benefit teachers, students and schools. At the end of the three-day teacher workshops, the teachers get free software, curriculum guides and a VEX Starter Kit each to take back for use in their classrooms.

As part of the deal, teachers must field one or more student teams to compete in robot competitions held locally in the state. This has been a boon for the teachers because the students are extremely enthusiastic and highly motivated, and the resources for the new robotics programs are almost entirely paid for by the state, i.e., by taxpayer dollars. The IRE program costs teachers only two or three days of their time at a training workshop; the teachers and their school boards are not asked to pay for anything.

Left to right: Dan Ward, Luke Ward and Kyle Wiley of the IRE are immersed in robotics. Two VEX robots are visible in the foreground, and in the background is a retired industrial robot that was formerly used by Chrysler to move transmission casings.

Backing for the IRE’s robotics programs has come from the IDWD because that agency is charged with ensuring a flow of technically trained graduates into the local workforce. IDWD partners in this program with Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana—a statewide college system that provides the facilities for the teacher workshops and that ultimately trains technical majors for Indiana industry.

Everybody Wins

This expanding program is a win-win for all. It has long been recognized that robots are a learning accelerant—a catalyst that galvanizes students’ interest in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math). Because robots are entertaining and fun to build, operate and compete with, students progress more quickly in their studies and become more aware of technical career opportunities along the way. From the viewpoint of engineers, educators and government, this is of critical importance in a changing world in which our technological leadership is being challenged.

Teachers progress in their professional development and the performance of their schools is recognizably enhanced. The Ivy Tech campuses where the workshops are held benefit through a strengthened working relationship with the teachers who are educating the students who will soon be going to college. Even hobbyists in general benefit because the program heightens the demand for robotics technologies that squarely overlap with those enjoyed by hobbyists of all ages; in other words, the robotics market itself is expanding as a result of the IRE initiatives.

The Leaders behind the IRE

Dan Ward is the Design Technology Program chairman at Ivy Tech, the only community college system in Indiana. Dan and his brother, Luke, an assistant professor at Ivy Tech, have been pioneering IRE robotics educational programs since 2000 with the goal of inspiring high school students to pursue technical careers. Kyle Wiley, assistant professor at Ivy Tech, joined their team, and what they have achieved in two short years is nothing short of phenomenal. Their accomplishments could serve as a role model to change the landscape in technical education nationwide to our country’s benefit. In fact, Dan and his IRE associates have been contacted by educators in several states who wish to replicate the successes spearheaded there in Indiana.

Robot: When did you first launch a robotics program in Indiana, and how did that come about?

Dan: I was on a visit to the Indiana Statehouse to give a robotics demonstration to our legislature. I was there with my brother, Luke, who works with me on grant projects. We were trying to convince the state legislature that it was a good idea to fund educational robotics. To set the context, the Indiana Workforce Development agency has been a big supporter of  FIRST in our state. We were there with our FIRST machines, probably 10 teams. We were offering quite a show, making a lot of noise; a lot of robots were moving around.

The people from Workforce Development had heard we were coming and stopped by and asked what was the biggest hurdle in getting more schools involved with robotics programs like FIRST. I said, “training.” That’s the first hurdle; the second is money. They asked, “What is the best way to solve this?” And I told them “Let us train them. We will use your funding and give the teachers the equipment they need so that they won’t have to get it from their school.”

They then asked how much it would cost; now, I was on the spot. I turned to my brother and we whispered back and forth and then I turned around and said that it would cost in the vicinity of X dollars. Based on that, they figured that their cost per teacher would only be around $300 for three days of training and all of this equipment. They had never seen anything like it and asked me to commit this to writing in a proposal. This was on a Tuesday, and I said I could have it to them by Friday, so I spent a couple of sleepless nights putting the proposal together.

Robot: What happened next?

Dan: The following week was business as usual until Wednesday, when we jumped in the car to drive to Atlanta for that year’s FIRST national competition. While we were there, my cell phone rang; it was our school business office manager at Ivy Tech, who said that a check had shown up with my name on it and that it was for a substantial sum of money, and nobody knew what it was for. The DWD thought the proposal was such a good idea they jumped on it in less than a week! When that later played out, we actually surpassed our first year’s projected numbers; we came in under budget.

Robot: When and where are the workshops held?

Dan: Teacher workshops are held in the summer, June through August, on Ivy Tech campuses around the state. We have a 10-week window to hold eight workshops.

Robot: Can you characterize the process of writing a grant? What do you put into it?

Dan: Those in a position to allocate money want to see sustainability; that’s first. The grant writer must say that with the history here, there is this much more we can do, and that it will be self-perpetuating—that we have people who are involved and that they are going to stay involved. That’s the important part. Even if you don’t have it at the moment, you have to prove that it will be sustainable in the end.

Robot: How many have you trained, and when did your workshops begin?

Dan: The first year, we trained 35. That was a proof of concept on an old grant. We did that on donations; I put a little money into it. We scraped and got the information together. We had really good luck. The teachers really seemed to enjoy it.

The next time around, summer of 2006—and that is the same time as we partnered with the Workforce Development people—we had 121 participants. That was without advertising—just word of mouth. We had requirements defining what we could use the money for. We were able to get 121 people representing 102 high schools.

In 2007, we did a little marketing and sent out some emails. The Department of Education had a mailing list, and the science technology teachers received this on their list serve as well. I think word of mouth did more for us than any other channel, quite honestly. At this point, we have trained 560 teachers—560 robots have been delivered into teachers’ hands.

Robot: What exactly do teachers get in these workshops?

Dan: All have been given free VEX Starters, current Autodesk Inventor software, a DVD with a curriculum that we have developed over the years and robot project and competition notes. This is provided in Microsoft Word format so that they can edit it. They also build a robot during the workshop and compete with it on the third day.

The Tickler, assembled from a single VEX Starter Kit, is a winning design that has performed well playing Involution.

The Tickler an Involution Champ

The Tickler, assembled from a single VEX Starter Kit, is a winning design that has performed well playing Involution.

Sometimes, a design functions so well that it lives on season after season to continue competing in the game it was designed for. The Tickler, designed to play a game called Involution, can be assembled using just the pieces in a single Vex Starter Kit.

When playing Involution, robots collect racquet balls and put them into a goal made up of several pipes of differing sizes. The lowest pipe stands 2 inches while the tallest is 10 inches. The Tickler was designed to use motors effectively by making them perform multiple tasks. One motor collects balls and lifts them up 10 inches. This motor’s function is the key to this design.

The unique feature of the Tickler is the way it is able to collect and score. Collection is achieved by means of a “beater brush” mechanism that works like a farming combine. The robot drives around the playing field and gobbles up the balls. Brushes made from the zip-ties included in the kit spin and draw the balls up into the robot. The balls then proceed to two more brushes that pass the balls between them until they are delivered to a storage ramp on top. As they are initially drawn into the robot, the collected balls are funneled into two columns instead of one to avoid jamming the mechanism. These two columns continue to the top of the storage ramp. To score, the robot positions itself above the desired pipe and lets one column at a time discharge a ball by opening a servo-operated gate. This robot can collect, store and score 16 balls at a time.

Robot: How to you administer these programs?

Dan: I have partners around the state, and this is a big reason for our success. Our Ivy Tech Community College is the largest school in Indiana by enrollment, and we have 24 locations. I’ve been working at Ivy Tech for 12 years and know pretty much everybody, we are all friends. We work together on curriculum issues and meet a couple of times a year, sometimes on holidays—all sorts of things. So I call my counterpart and say, “Mike, we are coming down to your campus for the robotics competition, and I need you to help get us set up.” He then goes into motion, rents us a motel, arranges for food and coordinates with the instructors who are coming in.

When I’m taking a workshop to a campus, I have to work closely with the chancellor of that region as we ask them to fund a small part of the activity. I note that in addition to letting us come in and use a building, I would like my counterpart to be paid for the week, so that he or she can focus and help me because I need that person to be available in case I need something. I’m asking them to invest. When they see 30+ teachers in there, working, at their campus, having a good time developing their skills as educators, they can appreciate the investment that they made to the community.

While the programs are ongoing, we are audited internally and externally, which is fine because we are spending taxpayer money. I also have to write grant reports that specify the outcomes and results of the workshops.

Robot: How do people sign up for the workshops? Where do you publish calendars?

Dan: We announce our competitions and our workshops at .robotevents.com, which is where participants can sign up as well. I can’t say enough about Robotevents.com because I truly think it is going to be gigantic. We are going to have people register through this engine. Registering by email is the worst thing that one can do; getting this done through a Web portal is more efficient as you are not flooded with questions from people who are not going to commit.

I put the information out there, and they can contact me if they have a specific question and they can register directly through the website. I can manipulate the reports from that website and manage who is going where. I can generate reports without having to do any typing. Robotevents.com is a great partnership between the sponsoring companies: Autodesk and Innovation First. I think you will see more people like me, who will start using it in that manner—to announce their conferences and workshops. It will be a giant clearinghouse and really do great things for people who are interested in competitions and getting in touch with other people.

Robot: How is the upcoming season shaping up, and how far along are you, overall, in terms of getting a robotics curriculum into Indiana high schools?

Dan: This season is shaping up well. We are organizing workshops in eight strategic locations to get as much done as we can in the time available. Student competitions are growing rapidly; as far as I know, we hold more than any other inland state. The Indiana Robotics Educators will be providing a number of challenging games for teams to compete in, including Involution and Marbelous. But as fast as we’ve grown, we have hit only about half the schools that we will ultimately connect with in Indiana. And the good news is that educators in other states are becoming aware of the IRE programs and are seeking guidance to create similar programs.

At a time when competence in engineering and hard science is defining the future success not just of students but also of businesses and even nations worldwide, Dan’s robotics in education initiatives are significant. Without even thinking about it, students dive into the technical areas to become better robotics competitors, and many have gravitated to technical majors as a result. We take our hats off to the achievements of Dan and his IRE associates.

* Below, in an extended interview, Dan further expands on the philosophy and methods that have made him so successful in expanding robotics education in Indiana. His insights should prove invaluable to others striving to expand robotics curriculum in middle and high schools anywhere in the nation.


Robot: Can you tell us a little more about the package that you provide to teachers in your workshops?

Dan: What is exciting is that we have integrated Innovation First’s starter VEX kit into our curriculum. We talk specifically about VEX systems. We do talk about other robotics programs and systems but we are primarily focused on VEX because it is so affordable and successful in this context. We give teachers information on lots of different robotics competitions and different things that the teachers can do in this arena as well.

Robot: Do you bring any non-VEX robotics technology to the workshops?

Dan: We show teachers a variety of robots including Parallax BOE-Bots, a FIRST robot, a BEST robot, VEX systems and a LEGO Mindstorms, among others. We put them at the front of the room and leave them there for the duration of the workshop. Size does not matter here; they all work basically the same way. These take up a lot of room but it makes an impact on the teachers. When you let the teachers drive these robots it impresses them; they remember that forever.

The content of the workshops would take hours to describe. The agenda seems straightforward but there is a lot there and it is digestible in the three days. We figured it out–all it took was a little trial and error and a lot of thought. And we constantly modify what we talk about and the materials to make it more friendly and easier to understand; we are still learning. We see the results from it; we see the people competing and they keep in contact with us and ask us what’s new and what can they do next?

My goal is to try to help people who truly want to help others.

Robot: Do you include middle schools in your grant programs as well as high schools?

Dan: When I write grants I make sure that we can include middle schools. By the time you get to high school it is too late. Kids learn so fast when they are in third through sixth grades. That’s really where it should first happen .

Year 2 Workshops

Robot: You mentioned that teachers may attend workshops a second time the following year; can you tell us about that?

Dan: There is an interesting aspect of our program with respect to sustainability. It is not just new teachers who attend our workshops—veterans also come back for another workshop. In a sense they are our competitors. They are going to buy equipment for their school, and they are going to approach their school board and say that there is a need to further develop robotics and competitions at their school.

The second year programs are distinctly different. In our first year of grant-funded workshops in Indiana (2006) we had 121 people. Last year (2007), we had 156 new people and on top of that, we had 35 – 36 veterans who came back for a second year. That’s not to say that if you don’t come back a second year you are not going to further the cause. Some people just want to take it a step further, and that’s fine.

In the first year workshop, teachers learn the basics, including how to build a robot and compete. In the second year, teachers learn a little bit of programming. They focus on sensors, and on making those sensors and programming work together to make the machine do a task. They come initially to the same location as first-year people and they spend a few hours together. The veterans talk about what they have done over the past year with their robots, and then they disappear to a different area.

This year we will incorporate a work cell programming project in the second year program. Teachers will learn how sensors work and how to integrate sensors offered with the VEX robot into a work cell that we have designed. After two days, we bring them back into the rookie workshop and let them demonstrate what they have built. We split the rookies into teams of three or four, and we have the veterans mentor the rookies, who are building robots for the competition at the end of that day.

VEX Robotics in Indiana Schools

Robot: What percentage of the high schools in Indiana are using VEX robotics?

Dan: The goal of the grant is to have a VEX machine, a robotics presence, in every high school in the state of Indiana. We think we are approaching half of this.

Moving forward, this year we are direct mailing to the schools that we haven’t heard from. We are emailing superintendents and principals, and if we can find online the teachers who are involved in science, technology and mathematics, etc., we are going to email and/or direct mail to them at their school. We have already started this process.

Robot: How many VEX robots ought there to be in any given school?

Dan: I think you can thoroughly engage a class of 22 – 23 kids if you have four machines. With any of these robotics competitions, it’s not just the “build.” There is the design, the build, and then there are the many practical issues of getting ready for a competition. There are lots of things to do, and you can easily engage three or four kids per machine, basically.

Robot: Do teachers who take these workshops purchase additional machines?

Dan: Yes, they will go to their school board and say they need to integrate this into their classrooms. In all honesty, that takes a lot of bravery, anymore. Yet, we’ve found that the schools have been pretty supportive.

Robot: What about school administrators?

Dan: The school administrations take note because they see something that people are excited about. They see that the teachers are very excited and have engaged a large group of students in a short period—it must be worthwhile and it’s something they need to take a closer look at.

Robot: Have parents shown interest in robotics programs?

Dan: We’ve found that when students get involved, parents step up, also, and show an interest in robotics. At competitions, parents often say, “I’ve got to get one of these for my kids.”

Staffing and Coordinating Workshops

Robot: What kind of staff is required to hold a workshop?

Dan: My brother, Luke, is also a teacher. He and I handle the workshops with another partner, Kyle Wiley. The three of us basically link arms and work together to get all the material ready. I also have partners around the state and this is a big reason for our success. Our Ivy Tech Community College is the largest school in Indiana by enrollment, and we have a serious advantage—we have 24 locations.

So, if I want to put on a workshop, say, in Evansville, which is almost a five-hour car ride, down in the southwest end of the state, I get on the phone and call my counterpart at that campus. I’ve been working at Ivy Tech for 12 years and know everybody, we are all friends. We work together on curriculum issues and meet a couple of times a year, and get together for Christmas—all sorts of things. So, I call my counterpart and say, “Mike, we are coming down to your campus for the robotics competition and I need you to help get us set up.” He then goes into motion; he rents us a motel, arranges for food and coordinates with the instructors who are coming in. He takes care of room arrangements, gets us keys—he does whatever is needed to get us set up on his campus.

Why does he do this? I’m coming down to his campus and I’m bringing in 25 to 35 high school teachers from his area, to his building. The equation is: we tell the teachers that you come to the Community College Campus, our instructors are going to show you something that you have never seen before, potentially, and you are going to learn and be given this equipment to take back to your students. It’s not going to cost you anything but gasoline.

The teachers are now in love with my counterpart down there, they are in love with the campus and they love the school. Hopefully they will have a favorable experience; that helps us, and it’s a marketing issue, too, for us.

But, a lot of schools [nationally] don’t have that luxury. When they want to do training, they’ll say, hey come to our college, we are talking a 3-day robotics workshop, here, in this one spot. “Come to us.” But, you know, even if it’s free, they have to pay for their travel and lodging, for food, and it ends up costing them $600 – $700.

In our case, all they have to do is come to me, and I’m going to come to places that are within a half hour drive of their houses. That’s a major advantage—I don’t have to worry about facilities. We have laboratory space and can easily set up our computers; we have tables where we can work, power, places to plug in. All of this is duplicated at our campuses all around the state.

Selling Colleges on Holding Workshops

Robot: How do you persuade the colleges to allocate the resources for the workshops?

Dan: When I’m going to a campus, I explain to the chancellor of that region that we are coming and that I would like him or her to pay for this, this and this. In addition to letting us come in and use your building, I note that I would like my counterpart to be paid for the week, so that he or she can focus and help me, because I need that person to be available in case I need something. I’m asking them to invest. When they see 30 teachers in there, working, at their campus, having a good time, they forget all about the couple of thousand dollars that they had to put forward, if it’s even that much.

Robot: Do the colleges directly benefit from these workshops?

Dan: Yes, because the high school teachers are on campus, this ultimately furthers the flow of their students to the colleges.

Importance of Grant Reports

Robot: What role do grant reports play in this process?

Dan: The workshops are a good investment for the colleges, and part of the payback is that I mention them in the grant reports that go back to the state and to all involved. I say listen, their campus showed us a good time. They did a great job, their campus is beautiful, they are very supportive of this and we appreciate that, because they are helping us spread the word and advance technical education. The grant reports let everybody know.

It’s required that I turn a report in on the grant. The agency wants to know where we are at. They want our numbers, who was there and how many versus last year—they want me to compare and contrast just a little bit, but I don’t have to go into too much detail. These people watch us; we get audited two or three times during the course of a season. And that’s fine; they are obligated to do this because it is taxpayer money. They follow our progress and it has become an automatic procedure.


Robot: How have you used Robotevents.com in the course of developing workshops?

Dan: If you look at www.robotevents.com, you will see the Indiana Robotics Educators logo. I work with both Innovation First and Autodesk, and both are major sponsors of this web portal. I am in a unique position. When Autodesk and Innovation First first began talking about this website, they wanted me to be a part of it. They wanted my advice and help to prove that this portal would work, and it certainly has worked well for me.

Changing Work Environment

Robot: Are there any other aspects of your grant work that you’d like to share with our readers?

Dan: A couple of things are happening. Indiana is kind of a unique case. We have a lot of automotive industry here, and the fuel industry up north, and we had a lot of heavy manufacturing going on in this state in years past. Since NAFTA, it’s gone. Since the early 1990s, tens of thousands of jobs have gone. Generations of families that worked at these places, and they are now closed.

The government seems to have embraced that it’s ok if the U.S. turns into a service economy. That’s a lower class citizenship than we want to be at, I think. People want to be successful—I have four kids. I’m looking down the road; what are my kids going to be doing when they are my age? Did I have it better than my parents? Yes, a little bit. My father was first generation college and became an engineer. My kids will go to college but will they be able to make enough money to have a better life than I have given them?

Today, many companies are appealing to the government for more visas for more overseas workers, because we can’t find enough here. I read Tom Atwood’s PowerPoint presentation at Botmag.com on “Growing an Industry,” and thought it was dead on [presentation to Carnegie Mellon robotics educators conference on the state of the robotics industry in the U.S. and where our educational system stands in meeting workforce needs].

I applaud the working class and the skill it takes to build things. I told my son that when he’s old enough, I’m going to make sure he learns how to weld. At my high school, where my kids attend now, we used to have a beautiful shop. You could take classes in welding, woodshop, automotive, etc. and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Robotics is a way to bring the “applied arts” back into play. Look at it this way: robotics teaches you about materials science, electricity, chemistry, mathematics, statics and strength of materials—what other discipline teaches you about all of these things? And the students are having so much fun they don’t even know they are learning in the process.

Importance of Competition

Robot: How important are robot competitions?

Dan: We focus on competitions, because that is where it ends up. After three days at one of our workshops, we have the teachers play a game. That’s what students want to do as well—they want to compete. Without that element we would not have as many students involved. There needs to be an “Aha” moment at the end, some glory that some will achieve. In my 2006 Grant Report you will see the list of program outcomes that teachers are required to give us. They must produce a lesson plan; they have to do 15 things for us to satisfy the state government, to show that they have done what we told the state government they would do. One of those things is to come and compete with the robot.

Here’s what we do: they can’t use more than what is in that box to play the game that we are going to play. We call it a “one kit competition.” When we realized we could get 100 people to show up every time we did one of these, we were thrilled and nicknamed this the “one kit wonder.” This keeps it affordable for the teachers, who can come and compete and not have to spend any more money.

Robot: It is interesting that you will build robots from scratch at the workshops.

Dan: The teams of teachers have to form an identity. These are people who have never met before. They have to come up with team names. Our name when we play is always “the Ringers.” But we don’t compete with them, we demo the machine that we put together at the workshop.

Robot: Where can people go to find out more about the games that can be played with VEX kits?

Dan: People can visit www.Visualedgeinc.biz. That website is linked to Innovation First’s product page; Visual Edge games are sold exclusively through the Innovation First website. Go to www.Innovationfirst.com and www.Vexlabs.com, and click on the education button at the top. When you get to the education page you’ll see the Visual Edge banner on the right. You can also learn about the competitions by reading Robot magazine. We have a recommended reading list and Robot is actually at the top.

Robot: Are workshops on robotics curriculum on the radar of most states?

Dan: Initially, when we convinced the state to participate, there was no request for a proposal (RFP). Initially they did not have a clue, and this is true of a lot of states, I think. They don’t know how to fund such programs or even enough about them to produce an RFP. For many it’s a “club event” and not on the radar to be used to teach something. This is an early stage in this emerging arena, and the potential for expansion of robotics in education remains huge.

Robot: Are you extending these grant programs to other states?

Dan: Innovation First and others want to see this program spread to other states. IFI has put me in contact with people in California. People from Colorado, Tennessee, Kentucky and Texas have come to me and said we’d like to start this, can you tell us what is going on? I can duplicate this outside of Indiana, and we’ve kicked around some approaches.

If a state is willing to invest a small amount of money, I can come and train people in what we have used. They can opt to use it or not, that’s fine. I can give others the full run down on how we have been successful. In fact, any who wish to learn more about how they can start robotics programs for teachers in their state should contact me at dward@ivytech.edu.

Robot: Thank you Dan, for granting this interview. We wish you and your partners, continued success in bringing robotics into the classroom.

Dan: My pleasure!




Autodesk Student Community


IFI Robotics

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Robot Events


VEX Robotics Design System

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VisualEdge Inc.

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