robots navigating obstacle course
Students navigate a robot through an obstacle course at the Nebraska Robotics Expo. Photo by Wayne Moss

Alan Wang has a passion for delivering meaningful educational experiences to children who simply would not get from staying in the classroom. 

Wang is a strong believer that education confined to a classroom limits interaction with real-world concepts. 

“It’s not necessarily about sitting down in front of a book and doing your multiplication tables, it’s understanding spatial awareness,” Wang said. 

Almost defiant of traditional education, Wang looks for other sources for kids to learn concepts he thinks best prepares them for real-world scenarios, like Minecraft, which can teach spatial awareness.

“Not for the sake of entertainment, but for the sake of learning,” he said.  

Despite having an unusual approach for how concepts should be taught in classrooms, Wang said teachers are still vital to reinforce and organize lessons in the classroom. 

“I know some engaging teachers that can give Minecraft or any of that stuff a run for their money,” Wang said.

Wang’s passion for providing children with a more effective and comprehensive education led him to become an advocate for STEM education. Focusing on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, this newly-developed approach “reflects an integrated and interdisciplinary philosophy to teaching …  for helping students to master key competencies,” according to the Nebraska Department of Education’s web page dedicated to STEM education. 

Believing this type of education is the way of the future, Wang helps to organize the Nebraska Robotics Expo. This event helps kids get exposure to technology that isn’t available in many classrooms, which the kids can become familiar with and use to compete against teams from other schools.

The main attraction for the event were LEGO League competitions held in Hangar B of the Strategic Air Command & Aerospace Museum; the huge space needed for the crowd of family members, school faculty and other teams.

Schools all over the state competed against one another for their LEGO machines to move small buildings into place and reach the checkpoints quicker than the opponent. Successful teams showed their excitement when celebrating their victories while their opponents came together to examine why their machines had malfunctioned and how they could make them faster.

Across the museum, Hangar A showcased the CEENBoT, a small square robot with a motor and two wheels in the back with a pivoting wheel in the front. The CEENBoT competitions ranged from courses that required the programming of obstacle location to run the course automatically to races where kids utilized console gaming controllers to command the CEENBoTs around the arenas. 

Developed by graduate and undergraduate students at UNO in the electrical and computer engineering programs, the CEENBoT helps kids learn coding, the backbone of a functioning CEENBoT, improving communication and critical thinking skills as they work together to make robots capable of tackling a wide array of challenges.

Between the hangars and below the main entrance, Logan McIntyre showed off the STEMBot, “successor to CEENBoT,” he said. The main difference, McIntyre said, is this version uses a more beginner friendly programming language. 

“It’s all Python,” he told interested people after explaining how it’s much easier to use than other languages.

Wang believes STEM education is just the start of reforming education for the benefit of every student. 

“We’ve lived in this paradigm of industrial age education for so long that we have to get up to speed with 21st century modern living, where cellphones are ubiquitous,” he said.