The following post is based on an article I was asked to write for Educational Technology Solutions on Robotics in Education.
This article will examine how the use of robotics in education benefits 21st century learning and how teachers can get started with a robotics programme. Rather than only examining robotic technology and retrofitting it to an existing way of teaching, it is important to identify what you as a teacher you want your students to learn, and how you want them to learn. Then you can determine how the introduction of robotics can improve these outcomes. However, not only should we look at how robotics can improve what we are currently doing, we also should ask ourselves the question, what the integration of robotics, together with other new technologies, makes possible that was previously impossible?
What is the importance of robotics in the 21st century classroom?
Much has been written on what learning and learning environments should look like in the 21st Century. As teachers we know that learning is best when it is active, self-directed, goal orientated, authentic, interest driven and just-in-time. Learning environments should therefore be agile, student centred, have appropriative and adaptive levels of challenge and, value independence.
We are living and learning in a technology rich world. It is widely recognized in literature that 21st century learners need to be technologically fluent, to develop essential skills to live work and operate in the learning environments of today. Engaging students in an inquiry based approach where they are encouraged to collaborate and be creative in solving open ended robotics challenges offers a unique platform to address many areas of 21st century learning.
Robotics provides teachers with an opportunity to reimagine what learning could look like. It provides a context for inquiry and discovery, leading students become active problem solvers and to engage in their own learning. If students are given the time, space and purpose to tinker with robots and solve open ended problems, this will allow for thought and action to come together, and the opportunity for students to construct knowledge and build theories in individual and collaborative settings. These are critical practices for learning and discovery that have application across all curriculum areas and perhaps may result in harnessing greater human potential in creativity, participation and effort.
The implementation of the Australian Curriculum and particularly when it is released, the Technologies Curriculum, calls on students to learn to design, produce and evaluate innovative technological solutions to identified needs and opportunities. Along with facilitating the development of iterative problem solving, design thinking, computational thinking, systems thinking and critical and creative thinking, robotics can engage students in producing quality solutions to identified problems or opportunities across a range of contexts. Robotics can provide students with an opportunity to manage projects independently or collaboratively from conception to realisation and is also an ideal technology for use in STEM based (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) learning.
Another important reason for robotics to be integrated into contemporary learning environments is that it is fun! After observing and working with thousands of students from Kindergarten to Year 12 who have participated in Macquarie ICT Innovations Centre (MacICT) robotics full day boot camps, it is evident that no matter the age, gender or robot used, students are totally immersed in the guided and open ended challenges they are presented with and often do not want to stop – not even for a lunch break!
Getting started with robots
Firstly it is important to decide what learning you want to address through a robotics program. Robotics can be used to address many learning areas including literacy (particularly early years), science (physics and engineering), technology and mathematics. Teachers are limited only by their imaginations on the possible ways robotics can be integrated across the curriculum.
Secondly, you will need to select the type of robot(s) you wish to use. A good way to do this is to approach distributors and ask to ‘try before you buy’, most are usually very willing to loan schools a sample or come out and demonstrate. Visiting schools that are already running a robotics program and finding out how they run their program and manage the resources can be very helpful.
Depending on the age of your students and school budget, a number of robotic options are available and new ones emerging as technology continually evolves. A couple of examples are the LEGO range both LEGO WeDo and LEGO NXT kits and Bee-Bots.
Some considerations when implementing robotics in schools include:
- Management of resources. Consider whether your robotic kits will be travelling from class to class or will reside in one classroom?
- Technology infrastructure. Do your robots need to a computer for programming. If your school is considering or has wireless connectivity, then small laptops/netbooks or tablets could be a good option allowing for a mobile robotics solution and, obviously can also be used for other purposes beyond robotics.
- Staff training. This is essential to build confidence, gather and share ideas and understand curriculum
and quality teaching links.
- Join an online robotics community for support and sharing of ideas. There are many around but a few examples are legoengineering@googlegroups, FIRST Robotics on LinkedIn or follow the #robotics on Twitter.
- Consider how long each class will have access to the robotic kits. Ideally an immersive period is best whether it is every day for a week or longer. If students are building their own robots, they do not want to keep pulling them apart and rebuilding.
Macquarie CT Innovations Centre (MacICT) Robotic Boot Camps
At MacICT, two types of robotics student bootcamps have been developed, an Introductory boot camp aimed at introducing students to robotics and, The Next Step, aimed at moving students towards more complex challenges and advanced programming. Through a partnership with Macquarie University and LEGO Education, MacICT staff have worked with academics, researchers and teacher experts in robotics both from Australia and overseas to develop leading edge robotics boot camps for students and professional learning for adults.
During the boot camps, one robotic kit is provided between two students with the opportunity for the groups to access extra parts as needed. After after spending ½ hour building a robot, students move through guided challenges that aim to introduce them to the basic features of the robot and quickly enable students to program them to move. Students are not explicitly taught, but rather given challenges that create a ‘need to know’. Initially this is how to move their robots forward and backwards and turn. Explicit instruction is provided when needed and there is an emphasis on students collaborating to construct knowledge and find solutions. Students are shown where they can find support for programming both within the software provided and online. This encourages them to be more autonomous in their learning, rather than relying solely on the teacher.
Technology is layered through the robotics boot camps. Students are provided with flip cameras or tablet computers and are required to document one of their solutions to an open ended challenge. Smart Notebook is used as it requires minimal training to use. Students capture their programming using the camera tool, draw diagrams and explain their solutions. Video footage of the solution is also included. These documents are uploaded to Edmodo and retrieved by teachers and students on return to their school.
Following on from the open ended challenges, in small groups, students design their own challenges in a given time frame. Each group completes another group’s challenge and provides feedback to the designers.
MacICT’s Next Step Robotics boot camps take on a themed approach. Teachers can select from four themes, e.g. a fun park. Students are taken through some training challenges designed to introduce them to more features e.g. working with timers, rotation sensors or data logging. In small groups students design a robotic solution to fit with the theme and then the solutions a showcased at the end of the day.
Learning how to use technology is not enough, the heart of 21st century learning is about becoming a proficient an independent lifelong learner. Integrating robotics in education is a highly engaging medium, and when it is implemented using an imaginative, student centered pedagogical approach it can lay down foundations learning, innovation and change in 21st century classrooms.
Cathie Howe is a Professional Learning & Leadership Coordinator with the New South Wales Department of Education (NSWDEC) managing Macquarie ICT Innovations Centre. The Centre is collaboration between Macquarie University and NSWDEC. Its priorities are to promote innovation, enhance learning and teaching and to pursue an innovative research agenda.