Distance Learning & STEM
5 Ways to Do Robotics Remotely
This robotics teacher has found creative ways to continue STEAM lessons with her students virtually, even when they don't have robots.
- By Dian Schaffhauser
about how many uses besides the obvious ones you can come up with for
these objects: a sheet of paper, a marble and a straw. How about
these applications? Using the straw to suck air out of a food bag
before freezing, or converting marbles into wheels and a sheet of
paper into a paper boat. During a recent ISTE
Colleen Larionoff explained that she likes to give students divergent
thinking exercises like this one, sharing responses via Padlet,
to show them how there are many different ways they can answer a
question and solve a problem.
Larionoff is an innovation
coordinator and robotics coach for Dwight-Englewood
in New Jersey. During a brief ISTE "snapshot" session, she
shared what she has learned about helping her students develop
critical thinking skills and develop their social-emotional skills
with the remote robotics classes she teaches.
instruction is still fairly new for most teachers. While you may have
a set curriculum you want to go through, Larionoff noted, you also
have to be "willing to completely change it." As an
example, while she'd normally give students access to LEGO, VEX and
Arduino robots, that's not always possible in a remote setting. So
she's turned to the use of "found materials." She offers
challenges to her students, such as, what Rube Goldberg-like
contraption can you build using these components? And if you don't
have these components, what can you use in their place? Students have
concocted robotic arms, gear systems and catapults out of little more
than cardboard, string, straws and small robot parts that she was
able to send home with them.
also requires Larionoff to acknowledge that she's learning too and to
solicit feedback from her students to find out what they think about
what they're doing.
willing and showing that you are also willing to grow with your
students really helps them feel empowered to do STEAM," she
stay sensitive to
students might face in their home environment, whether that might
affect their access to the materials they might need for your
projects or the space in which to do building and construction.
mindful of that," Larionoff advised.
How (or Whether) to Provide Examples
said she struggles to decide whether or not to provide an example. On
one hand, beyond providing verbal or written instructions, an example
can help make clear what your expectations are, "especially for
those with limited language ability."
the other hand, students may just copy the example, thereby limiting
their creative thinking and student agency. Also, she suggested,
teacher examples can "promote frustration" when the student
tries to recreate it but can't make their version look like the
an antidote, Larionoff offered a few ideas:
a student example;
an example she's made that's "flawed or unfinished in some way"
and then point out what she'd do differently the next time, "to
make them think critically and realize that what I'm doing isn't
necessarily perfect"; or
the engineering process, by making an example in front of the
students and then disassembling it again "so they can't copy
Scaffolding to Balance Student Agency with Support for All
considers student voice and choice "really important."
Giving them free rein "can really help them be creative,"
she pointed out. However, that can also be "nerve-racking"
for other students, such as those who don't speak English well and
don't understand what you're asking them to do or those who have
other learning differences that make it tough for them to work with
so much autonomy.
address both quandaries, she likes to keep her basic instructions to
the "bare minimum" and then provide a statement to this
effect: "You can stop here Below are additional resources if you
need help." As she noted, the step-by-step is available to those
who want it, but it won't hinder those who don't.
added that when working with English learners, teachers need to
remember not "to confuse language ability with intellectual
ability." They're not to be babied, but empowered.
Larionoff reminds her students "to start with what you know and
grow from there." Allowing students to set their own goals is
especially useful in activities where some students have a lot of
programming experience, as an example, and others have none.
Growth Mindset through Feedback
feedback Larionoff gives to students pushes them to think about what
they've done. She likes to ask reflective questions such as:
students finish their projects early, she'll ask, "Is there a
totally different way you could have solved this problems?"
goal with these questions is to encourage them "to persevere"
and to understand that the work can be hard, "and that's fine."
Self-Study for Self-Paced Choices
provide students with cross-curricular resources that allow them to
do self-study, Larionoff has turned to hyper-linked documents,
slides, choiceboards and Bitmoji classrooms (which can become "huge
time consumers," she warned). The idea is to create clickable
parts that lead students to daily challenges, articles, videos, art
and building projects -- resources that they can go through at their
self-paced concoctions are where Larionoff has been able to explore
aspects of robotics that don't fit always into the maker mold,
including career explorations and ethical concerns. She poses
questions to students, such as, "Do robots take jobs or are they
doing jobs people don’t want to do or couldn't do safely?" and
then asks them to share their responses.
important is to make sure that diversity is reflected in the choices
also comes into play. For instance, coding is a part of the content
for Larionoff's classes. But when students get stuck, she likes them
to take it to the group by sharing their screens -- though she
doesn't force it. She also uses pair programming, places students
into breakout rooms and asks them to show their progress and leave
comments in various tools, including Padlet and Flipgrid.
Hard, It's Different"
school moved online a lot of people asked Larionoff how she could
continue doing robotics.
she said, "It's hard, it's different."
even so, robotics encompasses plenty of skills development that has
nothing to do with the hardware itself, and that's what she
emphasized in her ISTE session. "If you think about the purpose
of robots and how they help people and then think about the problems
that robots are helping to solve, you can really promote empathy in
your students by having them think about the diverse users and what
their needs are."
pick up more advice, ISTE registrants can
watch Larionoff's complete session online.
Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.