Robot Revolution: Intelligence In, Intelligence Out

The familiar garbage in/garbage out axiom has long been a mantra of computer programmers, and nowhere is the cause-and-effect principle more apparent than when working with robots. Faced with the three-dimensional movements (and sometimes audio vocalizations) of robots, students across the grade spectrum can see the direct results of their input.

Robot Revolution: Intelligence In, Intelligence Out

Robot Revolution: Intelligence In, Intelligence Out

With the hope of introducing robotics in younger age groups, the Parkland School District in Allentown, PA, aimed to spread its considerable secondary grade success to the primary grades. This year at the district's Fogelsville Elementary School in Breinigsville, PA, media specialist Samantha A. Edwards piloted a maker space largely devoted to robotics.

Starting with Dash and Dot robots, Edwards helped K-5 students learn the basics of computer programming/coding. "Now we can integrate those robots into any curricular piece," she said, "and that's powerful."

The added "integration" dimension has educators counting the possibilities. Robotics and storytelling? Edwards is doing it. Using Lego WeDo classroom sets, she created a publishing section in her maker space dedicated to "digital storytelling."

"Students made an alligator [robot]," explained Edwards. "Then they made a story board, and from that point we used another Lego product — the story visualizer software — and they created a story, scene by scene. Then we hook it up to the computer and program the robot [alligator] to chomp down on something. They use coding here, and they put it into the story visualizer software and create a digital story … With this, students have that motivation to be able to share. They don't even recognize they are giving a speech."

The trial-and-error ethos is infectious, and Edwards has seen it even in young students. During one after-school session, students worked for hours to perfect a robotics movement sequence.

"I said, 'Guys this is it. Parents want you home,'" Edwards said with a laugh. "They did some fixes. They know the word 'debugging' and they know it's OK to make mistakes. They fixed it and they were successful. Parents loved the experience. One parent said, 'My daughter didn't believe at the beginning that she could code.' This experience has given her the confidence to be successful and do more, and now she is trying to build her own robot in the fourth grade."

Edwards' district has recognized the value in the expanded robotics program. Additional funding through the Parkland Education Foundation will provide robotics maker spaces in every elementary school in the Parkland district next year.

The additional investment may make coding/programming second nature by the time high school rolls around. "People can't believe I have kindergarteners who can tell you what algorithms are and what debugging means," said Edwards. "With Ozobots, for example, you can take markers and teach students coding and robotics. I had kindergarteners use the markers to draw a triangle, and then they took the robot and programed it to travel around the shape of a triangle."

Dip Your Robotic Toe
Administrators in rural districts who are looking to boost robotics throughout their schools need not despair. Stephanie Miller, superintendent and principal of Congress Elementary School District No. 17 in Congress, AZ, knows what it's like to get started, and she has had success so far. "You just need to dip your toe in," she said. "Begin with the fundamentals."

Enlisting the aid of some key tools such as Defined STEM can help teachers apply robotics, particularly in the context of project-based learning and integration across the curriculum.

Using rubrics provided by Defined STEM, Suzanne Sims, technology specialist in the Congress Elementary School District, designed an open-ended unit on wind turbines. "They could use their robotics skills in this unit," she said. "They could create a Lego wind turbine as their product. If they are not interested in robotics, they could create something out of other supplies."

During a K-2 unit on animal habitats, students learned how to make robots, and Sims explained that "they would make an animal [robot] of their choice, create the habitat, and do a research presentation."

Another addition to robotics at the school will be the usage of Wonder Workshop's Dash and Dot. "Wonder Workshop has a curriculum subscription with lessons and examples where you program the robots, lay a map on the ground, and you program the robots to go to regions where they do something in particular — so the focus is on geography," Sims said.

Yet another example is teaching geometry through robotics. This involves taping angles on the floor and programming robots to move in patterns. "This reinforces various concepts, while at the same time teaching concepts in robotics, but not being distracted by the robotics itself," Miller said. "If you can integrate robotics as much as possible, that's going to make learning robotics that much stronger, while at the same time reinforcing the regular curriculum."

All districts quickly discover that there is no robot without programming/coding, so at least some emphasis on basic programming is essential. The Congress district used to help students hone basic coding skills, while also exploring their personal strengths. "Some students learned they had a strength in coding, or in actually building the robots — the mechanical side," Sims explained. "Some showed talents on the electrical side, taking the robotics apart into components. Students come together and realize their strengths and career paths."

"There are students who have gotten some robotics skills in the first two years, and these students were ready to move on," added Miller. "So we introduced the Mindstorm, the EV3 and the First Lego League competition — and our students participated in that this year. It took three years to get there."

Beth Harrison, a STEM teacher at Mount Lebanon Elementary School in Pendleton, SC, just finished her first year as a robotics coach. She echoed Miller's sentiments, particularly when it comes to curriculum integration that uses robotics as a means to an end. One student in particular, she said, had struggled in the traditional classroom. His grades were not strong, especially in math, but he joined Harrison's robotics team and embraced the programming aspects.

"I explained to him that he was using math — measurement, logic and sequencing — to complete the missions," mused Harrison. "He looked at me puzzled and said, 'This is not math. This is fun.' I explained how it was in fact, math, and how good he was at coding. His teacher said she had seen many changes in his demeanor and work ethic. His confidence had been built up by being successful in programming robots."

With each student on a Chromebook, Harrison used Defined STEM with her third to sixth graders. "I selected grade-appropriate, standards-based tasks and walked them through the G.R.A.S. model," she explained. "I gave them the student log-in, and they started doing research/note taking — drawing their design, creating and finally improving. I use Defined STEM because it embeds all the materials you need in one place. I especially like the customize feature. The best part is I do not have to reinvent the wheel."

Wherever robots end up in the school, they become what Frank DiMaria calls "kid magnets," with students routinely unable to take their eyes off the little mechanical objects. As a computer teacher at Gold Hill Middle School in Fort Mill, SC, DiMaria said he saw the attraction first-hand when his district purchased two NAO robots.

Thirteen teachers in the district share the robots for two to three weeks in the classroom each semester, and each teacher makes up his or her own curriculum. "I put together a two week lesson plan [see DiMaria's article in T.H.E. Journal] where basically I had the robot do three things — walk a square, walk a triangle and walk a circle," he explained. "Then I had them do two things in which the robot responded to voice. In one case, the robot initiated the conversation, and in another, students initiated the conversation. After that, I had them do a free choice."

DiMaria agreed with the curriculum integration concept and sees applications for robots even in social studies and language arts classes. "We have a presidential election coming this November," he said. "I can envision students programming two robots to debate a topic. For language arts teachers, I could see them using the robots to act out a scene from a book.

"I encourage anybody who is going to start using these robots to get the robot during the summer if possible," added DiMaria. "Go to your classroom, write code and send it to the robot. Learn as much as you can."