OBERWESEL, Germany — Sometimes, Alex Wiederock plays around with Legos just for fun. On Tuesday, though, the Ankara High School freshman was feverishly building, programming and testing a Lego robot in the hopes of saving the world.
A comet had crashed into southern Germany just a few days earlier, and a mysterious illness was turning animals and humans into something like zombies. Nobody knew how many were dead, where the infection came from or how quickly it was spreading.
It was the job of 108 DODDS-Europe high school students from across the continent to figure that out and stop it from becoming a global pandemic.
Such was the scenario for DODDS-Europe’s third STEMposium, an event that immerses students in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math as they try to tackle real-world problems.
Created by DODDS-Europe educators around the same time as the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdowns that struck Japan, the program aims to attract students who have shown characteristics that employers like — the ability to work well with others, for instance — but not necessarily an aptitude for science, technology, engineering or math.
Advanced Placement students “already get it and they’ll be successful,” said Frank Pendzich, an engineering teacher at Wiesbaden High School and one of the event’s creators. “We’re interested in that marginal student that has interests and abilities but hasn’t applied themselves yet.”
Wiederock, who has her own robotics kit, fits surprisingly well into this system. She was assigned to work in robotics, one of six engineering disciplines featured at the event.
Though she’s had her own robotics kit for a while, she said, “I had no clue how to do any of this, to be honest.”
Here, she and 17 other students had to build robots capable of moving on their own, following a curvy path and releasing a cart at a specific point. She’d messed around with the kit at home, but only here did she learn how to integrate various sensors and motors and how to program to do just what she wanted.
“It’s working out pretty well, I think” she said of her creation.
Teams of six students each, one for each discipline featured at the STEMposium, compete head-to-head to come up with the most promising solutions to the problems at hand. The scenario is designed so that no one discipline can succeed without the others, forcing students to collaborate in ways they generally don’t in the classroom.
“Sometimes they have to collaborate with other teams and competitors, which is really important,” Pendzich said, “because that’s what we do in the real world in order to be successful as a whole.”
And in that real world, demand for workers with skills in STEM-related fields is high “so we’re trying to get students interested in those STEM careers,” said Amy Ney, a chemistry and biotechnology teacher at the DODDS high school in Vicenza, Italy.
The disaster scenarios that have been a hallmark of the school system’s three STEMposiums are one way they try to attract students to these fields.
“I think it helps students relate, because … they see that in the news,” said Christopher Putnam, who teaches architectural and engineering drawing and computer animation at Kaiserslautern High School in Germany.
Just in the last few years, the students have witnessed everything from a meteor impact in Russia to super storms and oil spills play out on television.
They see that in the real world, “so they can connect a little bit easier,” Putnam said. The technique also provides a vehicle for working in a team with strangers.
”In the future, these kids are going to have to deal with issues that we don’t know are problems yet,” Putnam said. This symposium helps prepare them to “confront the unexpected. There’s really no way to teach that.”
“I think this is such an amazing situation to be in,” said Camden Bigelow, a junior from Rota, Spain.
In school, you’re generally learning from books, he said. A lot of it is boring, and he expects he’ll forget a lot of it. Here, rather than just memorizing, students are learning skills to solve problems – how to design a part, and how to program a robot to make a part on a 3D printer on demand, for example.
“I think this is a lot more efficient in actually teaching people, because you’re going into a situation that’s realistic … and you’re presenting people with like the ideas of what they need to do and then you’re allowing them to generate their own skillsets,” Bigelow said. “Participation is a big part of education, and I certainly think they’re doing a better job here than traditional school.”
“It’s just a firm belief that somewhere in our crowd here, there is a student that is going to create an engine that doesn’t pollute or solve the world’s energy crisis or maybe find a cure for diabetes or AIDS or any of these other things that we don’t even know exists yet,” Pendzich said.
“And that’s what we’re trying to do is rather selfishly save the world for ourselves and our kids.”