SchoolBots seeks and destroys maths fatigue

1 Oct 2008

If a transition-year student was told they had to learn basic mathematical and computing concepts, how excited do you think they’d be? But what if they were asked to design their own custom robot and pit its moves against other students’ robots, ultimately blasting them to pieces? Now you’re talking!

The Schoolbots competition run by the Tipperary Institute, and sponsored by Lenovo and Google, is encouraging Transition year and Leaving Certificate students to enter their team by 31 October 2008 to be in with a chance to build and destroy.

Using the Java programming language, students will in fact be cultivating an interest in maths and computer science, but ideally in a fun, constructive way. As ICT is not on the curriculum at second-level, it is one of the only ways to show young adults what a third-level course in this area would entail.

“My experience from running SchoolBots for the past two years would suggest that the new mobile phone and game console generation of school kids appreciate and understand that computer software is needed and used in their every-day lives,” said Dr Liam Noonan of the Tipperary Institute.

“The issue, however, is that ICT is not taught as a second-level subject, so how can we expect them to know what ICT or computer science is all about if they have no experience?”

Noonan said he would like to see a senior-cycle ICT Leaving Cert subject that teaches the fundamentals of programming, multimedia and even technology and operating systems concepts.

“I would like to see programming being taught as well as ECDL, using a fun concept such as SchoolBots. If a student’s only experience of ICT is ECDL, then it’s a poor impression they are forming about the ICT industry.”

“ECDL ensures that students are not computer-phobic, in that they learn essential IT skills such as wordprocessing, spreadsheets etc, which is necessary for any third-level course.

“It does not, however, address the ICT sector in an adequate fashion and does not convey to the students what the ICT industry is all about, ie writing software, developing multimedia content and so on.”

As regards fitting Schoolbots into the schedule for teachers, Noonan said participation in the competition is usually incorporated into the Transition year timetable, with acting as a ‘one-stop shop’ for information on the project.

“It takes about four to six hours to teach SchoolBots. We are will be hosting a teachers workshop in October for interested teachers,” explained Noonan.

But what of recent reports that maths failure rates were rising?

According to Noonan, maths needs to be made more interesting or presented in a different way so students can interact with theorems and formulae in a fun and stimulating way.

“SchoolBots brings co-ordinate geometry and trigonometry to life, as students can implement (if they wish) targeting strategies, avoidance algorithms etc. Co-ordinate geometry can now pack a punch and destroy that enemy robot!”

The closing date for submission of entries is 12 December 2008, with prequalifiers taking place on 13 and 14 Jan 2009. The top eight schools will then progress to the national final on 12 March 2009. Get coding!

By Marie Boran

Pictured: Build the best, destroy the rest, says the SchoolBots programme