Learning by Necessity

How Robotics Develops an Engineering Mindset

David Chizzonite, a former engineer, has been teaching at Chittenango Central Schools for 27 years—20 as a middle school science teacher and the past 7 as a STEM specialist. He’s also the president of the Chittenango Teachers’ Association, the advisor for award-winning student robotics teams, and the coach for girls’ volleyball and boy’s lacrosse.

To learn about the new partnership in New York creating career pathways in advanced technology, we spoke with David, Leo Gordon of the United Federation of Teachers, and Robert Simmons of Micron. In that conversation, David explains how robotics prepares students for a wide variety of careers in tech. Here, David shares more about his instructional approach and the many skills students develop through preparing for robotics competitions.


My role is guide and facilitator, not teacher. The students—driven to win competitions—learn by necessity. Without instruction or blueprints, students have to do online research on different designs that they think might work. The program we use is VEX Robotics, entering in VEX competitions. The worldwide VEX community is open source. People love to put videos online showcasing their designs—but they are often cagey about how they built them. Preparing for competitions, the kids look at different designs, then they try to mix and match to find the best overall design that works for them. Then they have to figure out how to build it. The same thing happens at competitions; kids see things they want to build—but then they have to design and replicate it themselves.

I’m very fortunate because my school district has allowed me to have my own robotics lab. We currently have a sequence of four robotics classes: Introduction to Principles of Engineering and Robotics, Robotics Systems, Advanced Systems, and Engineering Leadership. Students in the Engineering Leadership class (all seniors) come to the introduction class; they assist the first-year students as part of building their leadership capacity. Developing these courses has been a process, adding layers on top of our foundation over several years. We also have an afterschool club for students who are interested in robotics but don’t have time for the courses.

This year we have five teams that range in size from two to six kids. In some teams, kids take on very specific roles, such as coder, builder, or driver. One unique role is technical writer. Each team has to keep an engineering notebook to document their progress on almost a daily basis. By the spring, those notebooks are hundreds of pages. Much of what they are documenting didn’t work. But that’s important. In order to get it right, usually you have to get it wrong first.

Unlike other classes, where you do the math problem and you get it right and you’re done, in the world of engineering, even if you’re right you’re not done. A design might work today, but next week another team has a design that works better. You have to keep improving.

There are many lessons students learn beyond robotics engineering and teamwork. For example, as students learn by dissecting the previous year’s robots, they also learn inventory control. One robot is tens of thousands of pieces. Taking it apart can make a huge mess. In our inventory control system, everything has a place—the robotics lab is full of parts bins. I learned that from my time in engineering. The gentleman I worked for was a stickler on inventory control; he controlled his costs, and thus his profitability, by controlling inventory. I emphasize to my students that being organized allows us to maximize the use of our materials. Materials are limited; budgets are limited. Students learn that inventory control is essential, and they also learn the value of being able to find a part when they need it.

Another lesson I emphasize is upcycling. Schools have lots of places where they stash things they can’t use anymore. I’m very good at finding those little nooks and crannies and repurposing materials. For example, my school’s unused Chromebook carts became mobile workspaces for my students. Often, the discarded things we find present their own engineering problem—students have to find ways to adapt and redesign them to fit their needs.

As much as I enjoy supporting the teams, it’s still a challenge for me to maintain my own engineering mindset. I tell myself all the time when I’m watching students do something, “It’s their work.” If they ask me, I advise—and they listen or not. That’s up to them. If I don’t agree with them, and they go ahead and do it anyway and it doesn’t work, then they learned an important lesson. Far more enjoyable is when I’m skeptical of what they’re doing, and then it does work. I tell the kids, “Feel free to prove me wrong.” And they do! Those are rewarding moments because I’m the student. I say all the time, “You taught me something today.” It gives them—and me—a lot of satisfaction.

American Educator, Spring 2024