Making Robotics Education Accessible
Inspired by the long running NATCAR collegiate competition, the natcar.org outreach project aims to provide underrepresented high school students without access to STEM programs, a meaningful design experience with an emphasis on electrical engineering. This contest differentiates from well-established robotics competitions like the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) by placing the emphasis on the curriculum and learning instead of the outcome itself.
Each NATCAR kit is packaged with an interactive online instructional program which requires little to no guidance from trained professionals. To ensure adequate grasp of the materials, students’ learning process will be accompanied with the aid of undergraduate engineering students who developed the curriculum themselves.
Not a lot of robotics programs are offered to students and even so, the big programs cost at least thousands and not all schools have the income to facilitate it. With a low start-up cost of $100, NATCAR offers a sensible, economical solution to schools that have limited human and financial resources. It is hoped that through its affordability, and by placing the emphasis on the circuitry, the course will encourage more high school students to go into the field of electrical engineering; thus, expanding their scope of opportunities. NATCAR is a useful platform for students to get exposure in the industry and in turn, gain insight and networking opportunities. Upon completion of the competition, students will attain practical and applicable skills in electrical and computer engineering, presentation, teamwork, and leadership.
Today, technology updates and evolves at an ever-increasing rate. Because of the advancements in technology, there is a growing demand in these products resulting in an increase in costs. We can also see this in the job market. Because there is a growing demand for engineers, the wages/salaries for engineers are increasing. Let’s imagine that students who were interested in pursuing STEM careers had access to the resources they needed. This would help students in a plethora of ways. From developing an early understanding with their coursework to experimenting with circuits, having access to resources that fundamentally shape the lives of students. Not only would there be a boost in STEM careers, but the students themselves will have viable experience to learn from. Unfortunately, reality cannot be further from this notion rooted in equal access to resources. Every student comes from a different socioeconomic background. Not every school has the appropriate funds to pay for important resources.
A career in STEM bases itself on the quality and accessibility of STEM education and resources, and to produce quality education means adequate funding. However, we know the reality of school funding: some schools get more, and some get less based on area and income. Multiple studies demonstrate that students with a low-income background fall behind in terms of their educational experience, with a majority of this group being students of color. With the ever-widening education gap, these same students feel the pressure to keep up. But the consequences already show as there is still a stagnant growth of diversity in STEM careers such as engineering. Rather than a lack of interest, underrepresented students lack the resources to discover their potential in STEM careers. Without the effort to start a change, the STEM workplace will remain unchanged as a divided environment that leaves behind underrepresented minorities.
It all started when...
The NATCAR design competition was originated in 1993, where engineers from National Semiconductor sponsored and began collaboration with the University of California, Davis. Both National Semiconductor and the university were interested in placing an emphasis on circuit-level design issues, and not on microprogramming. It was decided that a project involving sensing and control could provide a suitable setting for such a design experience.
The project chosen was to design and build a control system to guide a model car around a defined course. The competition would be to navigate the course in the shortest time. Because of the connection to automobile racing, and in recognition of the industrial sponsor, the activity would be known as the NATCAR competition.
In recent years NATCAR has expanded to include multiple divisions: Graduate, Undergraduate, Primary, and Alumni. In 2015, NATCAR ran its largest event ever with 45 teams participating. Some of the biggest and most prestigious schools in California have competed in the past including UCLA, Stanford, UC Berkeley, UC Santa Barbara, Cal Poly, UC San Diego, and San Jose State University. Texas Instruments has taken over as the main sponsor for the event and now has made it even more accessible for high school teams to join by introducing the TI-RSLK kit.