Building Robots, Changing Futures: Preparing Today’s Students for the Jobs of Tomorrow

Technology is advancing at an unprecedented rate. Today’s teenagers are scratching their heads over rotary dial phones and tape cassettes; twenty years from now, they could be parents to children who are bewildered by desktop computers and cars that can’t drive themselves. Preparing our newest generation for jobs of the future is a vital and complex challenge. Journalist Sarah Sweet talks to Markham entrepreneur Ramy Ghattas about robots, hands-on education, and getting students excited about math and science.

 

The jobs of tomorrow have already arrived, and they’re only going to continue to get more technologically complicated and sophisticated. If today’s students are going to find fulfilling employment – or perhaps any employment at all – they’re going to have to acquire skills we didn’t even have names for a decade ago.

And that presents a problem – a number of problems, in fact. Although it’s been estimated that 70 percent of top jobs require advanced skills in math and science, more than half of Canadian high school students drop classes in those subjects once they’re no longer compulsory. (In Ontario, that’s after grade 10.)

If Ontario is going to produce a generation of students equipped to take on these jobs, it has to somehow turn “math is hard” into “math is useful,” or perhaps more importantly, “math is fun.”

And while studies show that early engagement with STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) promotes interest that lasts throughout secondary school and beyond, many elementary school teachers were among those who dropped out of the programs in high school as soon as they could.

Ontario’s school boards are well aware of these challenges: they’re updating their curricula, emphasizing the importance of hands-on learning, and introducing supports for teachers to keep them informed and enthusiastic about developments in STEM. In certain cases, they’re partnering with external educational specialists who’ve made “bringing science to life” their primary focus.

That’s where Logics Academy comes in. I recently had the opportunity to talk to Ramy Ghattas, the company’s co-founder and director of business development, about the Logics model – and how it’s invigorating students and teachers alike with its creative take on STEM education.

A former Toronto District School Board student, Ghattas had a life-changing experience when he participated in a robotics program in high school. All set to tackle a career in medicine, he found himself shifting his goals after getting hands-on with robots.

“It really intrigued me,” he told me. “It opened my eyes and made me wonder how I could explore that out of the classroom.” Ghattas asked his teacher how he could make this experience a career, and later studied engineering at the University of Toronto, working to build its Robotics Association and participating in challenges around the world.

Ghattas knows first-hand how getting up close and personal with technology can spark a child’s interest, and a determination to ensure that other young people have hands-on opportunities led him and co-founder Paul Giampuzzi (now director of new projects and innovation) to establish Markham-based company Logics Academy in 2011.

Employing Ontario College of Teachers–certified instructors, scientists, and engineers, Logics Academy develops STEM content for kindergarten to grade 12 students. The Ministry-created curriculum tells teachers what concepts their pupils should be learning, but it doesn’t provide road maps for the creation of lesson plans. Logics takes those curriculum expectations and uses them to design hands-on, collaborative classroom experiences related to robotics, aerospace, and coding.

“Educators are the individuals on the ground floor working with thousands and thousands of students,” Ghattas explained. Building on what Ghattas terms the “Cs of learning” – critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity – Logics aims, he said, “to bridge the gap for educators in terms of knowledge, developing real, in-depth lesson plans and content to develop the curriculum in the classroom.”

Logics’s focus is on the delivery of direct-to-student activities, whether through in-school, after-school, or summer programs, and their partners include public and private schools, libraries, hospitals, and science centres. Although their in-class instruction takes place primarily in the GTA, they produce robotics kits – complete with lesson plans, learning expectations, experiment sheets, answer guides, and, of course, everything you need to build a robot – that teachers from across the country can use to deliver the curriculum-tailored content in their classrooms.

Ghattas’s voice crackles with enthusiasm over the phone, and it’s easy to see how that kind of excitement about the mysteries and complexities of science and construction could energize a classroom. Of course, the fact that the students get to engage in activities like building cars and designing their very own Mars rovers doesn’t hurt. “Hands-on and project-based learning engage the students on a personal level,” Ghattas said, “because they become accountable for their own projects; they become responsible for their own education. They don’t feel like it’s the teacher’s role to teach them, and they’re just supposed to be sitting and listening to what the teacher has to say.”

Wanting to know more about how students and teachers respond to the Logics approach, I spoke with two educators about their experience with the company’s innovative STEM programming.

Remonda Ibrahim, a grade 7/8 teacher at Emily Carr Public School, had the chance to work with Logics at a STEM-focused summer school program. This past year, her 4/5 class was introduced to the concept of gear ratios. When I was that age, I would have read about the concept in a textbook, dutifully transferred the information to a cue card, and then reproduced my knowledge of it on a test before promptly forgetting it altogether. These young people had a dramatically different experience.

“They worked on gear racers,” Ibrahim said. “They got to race their cars, figure out what they needed to change about their cars – they needed to know how fast their cars could go, and how they could make them faster.” She wasn’t simply impressed by the technical skills they were able to pick up. “My favourite part as a teacher was the collaboration amongst the students,” she noted. “That’s what lasts after they’re gone – they’re going to talk about the great experience they had building this gear racer and how great it was to work together.”

Ibrahim’s sentiments were echoed by Nandanee Sawh, program coordinator for science and technology at the Toronto District School Board. Her group is responsible for supporting professional learning for teachers, and she recently helped arrange a STEM initiative that brought together 13 different schools to participate in a Mars rover challenge devised by Logics Academy.

“The energy in the room was just phenomenal,” Sawh remembered. “I just felt a sense of fulfillment at that time as an educator, saying, you know what, something’s happening in this room.”

I mention having watched a video of the event, which involved students building robots to send on a mission to Mars, and being struck by the students’ obvious excitement. She hastened to mention, “Although it looked like everyone was chatting all at once, there was a built-in structure within the day. That’s an important thing as an educator, knowing when the noise is productive and individuals are on task, working toward a common goal. The expectations are understood by everyone in the room, and everyone’s engaged.”

In that kind of environment, where collaboration is not only encouraged but vital, and students enjoy themselves so much they forget they’re learning, it’s easier to make sure everyone can thrive. “They’re no longer thinking, ‘Oh, I’m really shy,’ or ‘I might fail at this,’” observed Ibrahim. “They’re so occupied with the task at hand – a task that’s innovative, a task that’s creative, a task that’s fun for them.”

Indeed, all three educators stressed the critical importance of something that was actively discouraged when I was in school: failure. That’s right. These three motivated, dedicated, enthusiastic educators want their students to fail – but in the right way. “One of our cornerstones is fostering failure,” Ghattas explained. “The idea here is that embracing failure is part of a process of learning. If we don’t allow students to fail, we’re really not giving individuals an opportunity to learn from their mistakes in a safe environment.”

Letting students make mistakes encourages them to think critically and, perhaps surprisingly, helps build confidence. “You’ve got to fall so many times and fail so many times to build yourself up,” said Ibrahim. Sawh agreed: “We want kids to be critical thinkers, we want them to be able to be innovative thinkers. [Not having all the answers] can be the start of something great.”

With the help of invigorated educators, teamwork, robots, and a whole lot of constructive failure, today’s Ontario students are poised to take on the world of tomorrow.

 

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