Medibotics at NJIT: Training Teachers to Use Technology in the Classroom

Teacher Randy Sherry (left) and his robot (center) get assistance from NJIT Teacher Assistant Matt Magnifico.

NJIT students like hands-on learning.  They like working on projects that allow them to use the technologies they’ve grown up with.  Professors here understand this and don’t subject their students to long lectures.  Most professors assign students hands-on projects that, in an engaging way, teach them the fundamentals of engineering, science, math and technology.        

The teaching style, known as the studio method, has proved so successful that NJIT is now training high school and middle school teachers how to use it.  For the last two summers, some 60 teachers have come to NJIT to study Medibotics (medical robotics).  In the workshop, funded by the National Science Foundation, the teachers learn to design and program LEGO® Mindstorm robots.  One team of teachers programmed its robot to conduct cardiac bypass surgery.  But instead of replacing a clogged artery, the robot replaced a black Twizzler (the clogged artery) with a red Twizzler (a healthy artery).  Designing a robot is fun -- it’s hands-on active learning and students work together in teams -- but it also involves mastering principles of engineering, math, physics, medicine and programming.  And come September, when their classes resume, the teachers will distribute robot kits to their students and, using the studio method, teach them all that they learned at NJIT.  The use of the robot kits as well as the studio-method of teaching will enhance the curriculums in their schools.  

“And that’s what’s its all about -- the transfer of knowledge,” says Ronald Rockland, professor of Engineering Technology and Biomedical Engineering at NJIT.  “We at NJIT have pioneered a technology-based, hands-on teaching style and we are sharing that method with teachers, who will share it with their students. The students will take a keener interest in science and engineering, and some will later study those subjects in college and become our country’s future engineers, scientists and technologists.”

What follows are comments from four teachers -- in their own words -- about what they learned this summer in the Medibotics project.  Included, too, are comments from two NJIT teaching assistants who helped teach the class.

Marilynn Donahue teaches at the Morris County School of Technology in the Academy for Healthcare Sciences, in Denville, N.J.  She teaches classes such as Anatomy and Physiology, Medical Math and the Dynamics of Healthcare.

“All of what I learned this summer was new to me,” says Donahue. “In the classes I teach I deal with lots of blood and guts – dissections,” she adds, laughingly.  “The most daunting part of the Medibotics class was learning Java programming. But it wasn’t that hard and the LEGO® Mindstorm kit was easy to use.  Most of my students want to work in the medical field – go to medical school – and they are great at are memorizing facts and spitting them back to you.  I’ll use what I learned this summer in my Anatomy and Physiology class and I think my students will benefit greatly.  What they need most in the medical field is critical thinking, and that’s what using the LEGO® Mindstorm kit teaches them.  It teaches them how to problem solve and how to apply knowledge.  My students need and loved to be challenged, and this project will challenge them. When designing and programming a medical robot, you can’t just memorize facts and regurgitate them for the teacher or the test.  It requires critical thinking skills, and that’s what my students need most and enjoy most.”

Donata Nichols teaches chemistry at the East Orange Campus High School, in East Orange, N.J.  She also teaches the Advanced Placement chemistry classes to upper classmen. The Medibotics project, however, was her first experience with robots.

“I never programmed a robot before, but it was fun and challenging,” says Nichols.  “My school will buy robot kits for the students to use and believe me they'll grab onto it.  They'll love it.  They are obsessed with technology -- with the Internet. They love iPods, cell phones, and they can text message like mad with two fingers. The kits will be really useful in my chemistry classes, where I'll have students design robots and programs that illustrate chemical reactions -- reactions that have distinct color changes.  It will introduce an excitement factor into my classes.  They'll know that every Tuesday will be robot day! And they'll get excited. They will learn how to design and program their robot faster than I did.  When I first saw the robot kit I said, ‘OHHHHHH.’  But they'll see it and say, ‘AHHHHHHHH.’”

Clare Kennedy and Randy Sherry teach at the Dwight Morrow High School/ Academies @ Englewood, in Englewood, N.J.   Kennedy supervises the school’s Bio-Med and Allied Health program, while Sherry teaches a variety of technology classes such as information systems and pre-engineering.  In the fall, together they will team teach an elective class in Medibotics.

Clare Kennedy:

“I think the Medibotics class will attract girls and minority students and increase the number of underrepresented students in science classes.  That’s really important.  But the Medibotics class will offer something to all students. Bringing a robot to class is like bringing a toy to class. And the students love their computers.  If a student likes just one aspect of this class – say the design of the robot, he or she’ll get drawn into the other elements – the programming, the engineering and the physics.  The students may not even realize they’re learning all these subjects, and that’s the best way to learn.  I’m a professional development junkie; I love to take summer classes and keep current with subjects and this class was great. The professors and the teaching assistants were great and really made it fun.” 

Randy Sherry:

“I’ve used robot kits before, so this was not new to me.  But using robots and computers in our classes is a way to grab and hold our students’ attention spans, which have gotten shorter.  They love physically making things happen in class. You get immediate gratification and feedback when you design a robot, and that’s what our students want.  It’s not like telling them, ‘You are going to do theoretical research for the next 20 days.’ A robot kit offers immediate use and pleasure for the students. After all, we are teaching the tech-savvy generation, and we lose them if we lecture at them.  The teaching assistants from NJIIT who helped with the class knew everything about technology, robots, programming, science, etc. They were amazing.”

Hamid Bagce, a Teaching Assistant, graduated from NJIT with a degree in biomedical engineering.  In the fall, he’ll begin his second year of medical school at UMDNJ, Newark.

“If you were to ask someone what is the best way to teach a young student a certain principle, the most obvious answer would be to introduce the topic in a fun and interesting manner.  And what’s more fun and interesting than having students use LEGO® robots and their computers to program robots?  The Medibotics workshop relates this manner of teaching to a group of middle school and high school teachers who teach various subjects like math, science, biology, physics, robotics, anatomy & physiology and technology.  At the heart of the Medibotics workshop are the “mock surgeries” that we have the teachers design using the LEGOs (and their imaginations).  NJIT students work on this same project in a biomedical engineering class that teaches them the fundamentals of engineering design. The class is popular, and the professor who pioneered it, Professor Richard Foulds, is well-loved by his students.  Professor Foulds also pioneered the use of the studio method of teaching engineering at NJIT. That’s why we trained the teachers in this teaching method.  It represents the best that NJIT offers its students. So it’s great that the teachers, and their students, will now benefit from this fantastic teaching method.”  

Matthew Magnifico, Lead NJIT Teaching Assistant, graduated from NJIT in May with a degree in biomedical engineering. In the fall, he’ll begin graduate studies in the same field at NJIT.

“The LEGO® Robot acts as a hook that not only allows the students to enjoy what they are doing, but to have a better grasp on the science and math parts. Because the Legos appear to be a toy to most of the students, it tends to distract them from the fact that they are actually learning and developing skills that will help them later on if they so choose a field in math and sciences. When the teachers came back to us after having implemented the LEGOs into their classes (they were the teachers that were here last summer) they told us that this same excitement was easily instilled in their students and that they took more away from the traditional lessons. We have teachers who will be forming entire classes based around the ideas and activities presented in the Medibotics workshop. I'll also have the privilege to visit the teachers during the school year to help them implement the techniques we've taught them over the course of the two-week workshop.  I'll also give private lessons for those teachers who will delve into more advanced topics with their students.  In my eyes, if the robot helps one child find direction in his/her future, then the project is worthwhile.”

(By Robert Florida, University Web Services)