A Love of Science, Math Comes Through Solving Entertaining, Realistic Problems
Assistant Director of Science and Engineering Education Center is Among Those at UT Dallas Working to Encourage Youth to Embrace STEM Subjects

Texas BEST Robotics Competition

Dr. Ken Berry, assistant director of the Science and Engineering and Education Center at UT Dallas, celebrates with members of the team that placed first place at the 2014 Texas BEST Regional Robotics Championship.

It was no accident that Dr. Ken Berry, assistant director of the Science and Engineering Education Center (SEEC), gravitated toward teaching STEM subjects. His dad was an engineer and his mom was a teacher. Still, he recalled not particularly liking math courses, so he sympathizes with kids who learn better through activities. 

Berry pushed through to earn a doctorate in educational technology at Pepperdine University and taught middle and high school science classes for a while in downtown Los Angeles. 

He started working with robotics in the early 1990s as a specialist in the education division of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, NASA’s lead center for the robotic exploration of space. That experience changed the focus of his teaching.

“I kept running into engineers,” Berry said. “NASA repurposes things; they don’t create things. There were 10 times as many engineers as scientists or mathematicians. It made me think, 'Was I really looking to prepare scientists?' It seemed to me that we sure need a lot of people who can apply scientific principles. And those are the engineers.” 

Also In the Spring 2015 UT Dallas Magazine

UT Dallas Magazine Spring 2015 cover

Combining science, math and fun connects children not only to future careers but also to improved communication, teamwork and analytical thinking. UT Dallas seeks to engage children in STEM subjects long before they become college students. read more

Berry said teachers who merely pass along scientific facts are not as effective as those who engage students with the scientific processes involved. Helping students understand it in a real-life way is key, he added. 

“The process of engineering design is what turns professionals on, not just knowledge. It’s a creative and innovative process,” Berry said. “You might know the right notes on paper, but it won’t help you if you don’t actually play it on the piano. 

“If you don’t cause the kids to think through it, to use that information and apply it, they’ll just forget it,” he said. 

The LEGO Corp.’s development of its Mindstorms kits in the early 1990s created a paradigm shift for teaching science, Berry said. The kits provided users with the technology to create custom, programmable robots. Teachers could now incorporate a variety of STEM subjects, including computer science, mathematics, design and engineering, while students tackled a single robotics project. 

“Robotics is a unique activity because it puts it all together. It made it much more exciting than before,” Berry said. 

Berry’s love for robotics extends into his spare time. 

A few years ago, he developed the Robotics merit badge for the Boy Scouts of America after a survey showed that Scouts wanted to earn recognition for academic interests in addition to outdoor activities. Berry, an Eagle Scout, was tapped for the job. 

“They were not meeting the needs of boys who were doing other 21st century things,” he said. 

A frequent writing contributor to Robot magazine, Berry also serves as president this year of BEST Robotics (Boosting Engineering, Science and Technology), a national organization that holds annual robotics competitions to introduce middle and high school students to the engineering, problem-solving and teamwork involved in STEM fields. 

Robotics competitions give kids who are good in science the kind of recognition and excitement usually reserved for athletes, Berry said, complete with thousands of screaming fans, pep bands, cheerleaders, music, dancing and mascots. 

Teams are given plywood and a box filled with items such as PVC pipe, screws and other hardware, an irrigation valve cover, piano wire, an aluminum paint grid, a bicycle tire tube and a micro-controller. The teams have six weeks to design and build a functioning machine that can perform specific tasks in three minutes. 

Berry said figuring out the puzzle is where the learning happens. 

“I hated grading as a teacher, but I don’t mind being the coach,” he said. “I’m here as a helper, not as judge, jury and executioner, so you can bring all your failures to me and I’ll help you learn from them.” 

This article first appeared in the Spring 2015 edition of UT Dallas Magazine. See the edition online.

New Jersey third-graders Sergio Vasquez (left) and Janer Lopez took top honors with their project inspired by UTD researchers.

UT Dallas Researchers Fortify Children's ProjectA YouTube video and a few email exchanges with UT Dallas researchers inspired two young boys from New Jersey to explore science.

Janer Lopez and Sergio Vasquez were third-graders at Willow Grove Elementary School in Hackettstown, New Jersey, when their teacher, Jonathan Lightcap, showed them a “how-to” video made by the research team led by Dr. Ray Baughman, the Robert A. Welch Distinguished Chair in Chemistry and director of the Alan G. MacDiarmid NanoTech Institute at UT Dallas.

The researchers had posted the video on YouTube in conjunction with the publication of their research in the Feb. 21, 2014, issue of the journal Science. It showed the simplicity of making artificial muscles by twisting ordinary fishing line and sewing thread.

Intrigued, the boys decided to make their own artificial muscle and incorporate it into their project examining the force of a karate punch.

When the students had trouble replicating the technique, Lightcap emailed Baughman for assistance.

“What we received was a dream come true,” Lightcap said. “[The team] sent us a copy of their findings, and provided step-by-step instructions and insights that turned out to be just what we needed.”

The students not only created artificial muscles from fishing line, but also won top prize out of 120 other projects at their science fair, just days after the scientific paper was published.

Lopez said doing the science fair project made him feel like he was a real scientist.

“I had never done anything for the science fair before, and I didn’t really care about science,” he said. “But now I actually like it.”

Vasquez, who is considering a career in science, said, “I now know that I can create an invention that could change the world in so many ways.”

Lightcap summed up the experience as a personal career highlight and validation of what he tries to do as an educator. “Just by taking some time out of their day, [the UT Dallas researchers] inspired, motivated and sparked these boys to achieve, question and take pride in themselves.”

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].