Expert Viewpoint

Robotics Connects Young Learners to Core Curriculum and Each Other

Collaborative lessons help teachers accelerate learning for all students in math, literacy, and SEL.

Teachers this year are welcoming students with a wider than usual range of academic progress, even in the earliest grades. While some K–3 students are weeks or months behind grade-level expectations due to lost schooling, others are ahead because they thrived during remote learning. In this unique year, districts need resources to reach all students where they are. At the same time, teachers looking to work as efficiently as possible need tools and techniques that connect to multiple core subjects and build community among kids who have returned to in-person learning (or are experiencing it for the first time).

Engaging robotics activities that reinforce core subjects like math and literacy by using collaborative learning strategies can help teachers reach all of their students—but first teachers must be comfortable with the robots and coding concepts themselves. Early childhood teachers seldom have experience with computer science, and many districts don't have instructional technology specialists, so robots based on longstanding best practices in early childhood education are a smart place to start. And because today’s teachers are more time-starved than ever, in-depth, in-person PD that doesn’t take up a great deal of teachers’ time is essential to lay the groundwork for lessons that accelerate learning not only in computer science, but in math, literacy, and SEL as well. Here are some examples of how early education teachers can use robotics to make the most of their instructional time.

Introducing Students to School and Each Other

My suggested activities below are all based on the KIBO robot, but other robots can work similarly. For example, students can program their robot to greet every student in the class by flashing a light when kids clap the syllables of each student’s name. This activity builds not only community, but literacy, rhythm and music skills as well. Encouraging the students to recognize and greet each other by name helps build a community through social-emotional skills practice.

Students can also use robots with sound recorders to capture and share short audio clips, such as a message to new students sharing their favorite things about the school. They can then program the robot to maneuver to another area of the class and deliver their message to a student or teacher.

Inspiring Collaboration

Some of this year’s kindergarteners or even first graders may have never experienced in-person school before. Once they’ve been introduced to their classrooms, they need to learn basic collaboration skills such as how to work in small groups and share materials. One effective way to do this is to form small groups that include one robot for every two or three students. Kids are naturally excited to get their hands on robots, so small-group work teaches them the patience and self-control that go into sharing.

Robotics Connects Young Learners to Core Curriculum and Each Other

From there, teachers can assign specific roles to members of the group. For example:

  1. The Robot Wrangler is responsible for building the robot.

  2. The Programmer is responsible for creating the program that guides what the robot does.

  3. The Checker verifies that the robot has been built and programmed correctly.

  4. The Designer decorates the robot to turn it into a character such as a hero from a story book.

A best practice is to have students rotate through the roles from lesson to lesson so they get a variety of experiences with the Engineering Design Process.

Teachers can also use collaborative learning strategies such as “expert groups” to allow children to build and share expertise in roles. Peer mentoring or working with children from older grades helps manage the challenges of supporting children who are returning to school at very different academic stages after the pandemic, and may need extra support in math or literacy.

Math: The Physical Number Line

To create a “Robot Number Line,” students program their robot to travel along a physical number line to model counting, addition, and subtraction. The physical representation makes the math concepts more accessible to young students.

Robotics Connects Young Learners to Core Curriculum and Each Other

Teachers can also scale this activity to different academic levels by changing the math operations that students practice. Number lines can represent not only counting, but also addition and subtraction, as well as simple multiplication.

Literacy: A Tale Told by a Robot

With “Robot Storytelling,” students reenact a scene from a storybook that they are using in the classroom. Decorating their robot as the main character and building the setting with blocks, cardboard, and arts and craft materials engages core ELA standards in literature through imaginative play. Programming their robotic character to act out the plot develops children’s sequencing skills, which are a foundation of both programming and literacy.

These are just a few ways that collaborative robotic lessons can unite an academically or behaviorally diverse classroom. As this challenging school year continues, building a learning community where students are comfortable and teachers can make the most of their time will depend on deploying tech tools that are easily adaptable for teachers and engaging for students.

About the Author

Jason Innes is the director of curriculum, training, and product management for KinderLab Robotics. He can be reached at [email protected].