We recently surveyed members of the Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE) to get a handle on the state of robotics education in America. In the course of four days, we heard back from nearly three hundred teachers, professors and administrators at universities, two-year colleges, technical schools and high schools. Here’s some of what we learned: Sixty-two percent of those surveyed have a robotics education program in place, the remainder do not. Fifty-five percent of those with a program aim to enhance it.
Many schools (60 percent) said they were moving toward career-based robotics education rather than a skills-based approach. In other words, schools are aligning their robotics programs with what employers specifically need. Developing students to become workers who contribute the day they enter the workforce is an agenda to which many schools subscribe.
That agenda is understandable because customers tell us about the importance of having people qualified to operate a specific type of robot for a variety of applications (e.g., welding, material handling, packaging, etc.). Graduates with theoretical knowledge of robotics or even general robotics skills may not be the ideal degree-holder in the mind of employers. Schools seem to be working to address this.
For instance, when survey participants were asked to rank the importance of their STEM/workforce development goals, the top-four vote-getters were:
1) give students access to real-world industrial technology,
2) increase the visibility and reach of their program,
3) improve enrollment, and
4) improve student job placement with area businesses.
Turning goals into action, though, takes funding. Seventy-one percent of schools say that their general budget is where they draw from to underwrite programs. Another sixty-two percent rely on some combination of federal grants and private-sector partnerships to run their robotics programs. Federal funding seems most often directed to and aligned with high schools and vocational schools, with some dollars percolating up to community colleges. As expected, the four-year institutions are academically focused, instead of delivering career-based instruction.
A big takeaway was the timeline many schools seem to have for implementing a new robotics program, or expanding their existing one. Of those 70-plus percent of respondents looking to implement or expand a program, forty-nine percent plan to do so before spring 2017. Another thirty percent expect to have their program plans in place some time around spring 2017. Fifteen percent are working on a timeline of two or more years. Six percent say their program is three to five years away.
To launch the type of program employers are looking for requires putting in place some very specific types and models of robots, but forty-nine percent of respondents without a program have yet to identify a robotics partner. Only one in four schools say they have active partnerships in place with companies using robotics. There is nearly $4 billion worth of funding available for STEM from federal and state sources, but much of the funding is tied to a school’s ability to establish a public-private partnership.
One way to successfully secure funding is for schools to align their training and curriculum with real-world applications. With alignment, administrators can determine the type of robot that makes the best sense for their program. When a company like Honda, for instance, meets with a high school or vocational school, executives want to see training on the type of robots at work in Honda’s plants.
The skills that graduates must have is driven by what the economy needs. With regard to robotics, a student’s ability to work with the very kind of robots they’ll someday encounter in the workforce is just as important as the type of degree they hold. In the 21st century, obtaining skills that are specific to a particular vendor or manufacturer will become the heart of a graduate’s credentials.