Opening New Worlds in Math and Science

Harry Cheng uses robots to teach school children computing, math and algebra in a fresh, engaging way.
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Harry Cheng

Location: Riverside

Impact: Transforming how kids learn in schools from Sacramento to Orange County

Harry Cheng's C-STEM program is changing how kids learn computing and STEM subjects, opening up new worlds for them.

Eight years ago, Professor Harry Cheng was finding that few students in his freshman computer programming course had prior experience in the subject. Inspired to increase exposure to computing in K-12 classrooms, Cheng saw a larger opportunity to transform how students from elementary school to college learn computing, science, technology, engineering and mathematics (C-STEM).

Using robots and weaving C-STEM curricula directly into existing K-12 math—especially algebra—and science lessons would make them more engaging and beneficial to students.

"This integration helps students make meaningful connections between regular STEM topics and real-life applications. It also helps develop their critical thinking and problem-solving skills," Cheng says.

In 2010, Cheng founded the Center for Integrated Computing and STEM Education (C-STEM Center) at UC Davis, expanding access to science and math-related fields across California, especially for at-risk students.

Today, the C-STEM Center works with teachers in more than 70 schools from Sacramento to Orange County to deliver a curriculum based on the modular robot invented in Cheng’s lab. Formerly low-performing students have turned into classroom stars.

"As an engineer and educator, if my work can change the lives of young men and women for the better, I am happy," Cheng says.

Each spring students participate in team robotics competitions at C-STEM Day, showing off the skills they’ve developed in class. The third annual event will take place at UC Davis, Sandia National Laboratory in Livermore, and in Orange County.

“I’m really happy when I see students who have not been successful in traditional school settings win championships in our robotics competitions. For many of them, it is a life-changing experience.”

The next steps in Cheng’s mission: Bring the C-STEM program to more schools in California and other states and encourage more students to pursue careers and postsecondary study in related fields.