Robotics in the classroom

Robotics in the classroom


We speak about today’s children growing up with technology, and yet this has been true for at least a generation. Younger and younger humans are being surrounded by devices that they may interact with or see others using on a daily basis. Unfortunately, we are still presented with high school students about to enter college who are not ready to enter the field of engineering. In many cases, these students may need to take developmental math. It got me thinking. What are some schools doing to introduce science and technology in innovative ways to get children to desire to learn more?

Literature Review

Lego Robotics: STEM Sport of the Mindby Mark Gura is an excellent article showcasing the FIRST Lego League (FLL) qualifying competition and what some schools are doing with Lego Robotics in the form of experiential learning in the classroom. The article specifies how several teachers are using Lego robotics with their students.  Luke Laurie, with the enthusiastic approval of his administration, has reworked the school’s eighth-grade science curriculum to add a robotics course to the traditional physical sciences course.” (Gura, 2012, p. 14) The students excited to participate, and there was “significant growth and high levels of proficiency on standardized tests.” (p. 14)

Another fantastic approach is how the Stewards program “applies contemporary science to traditional Hawaiian cultural activities centered on sustainable agriculture and maintaining the land.” This STEM-rich series of activities include using equipment built with Legos to record soil data and similar information related to farming. The students have to decide what they are going to collect and what probe they will use. “Then they use the processor they build to collect, download, interpret, and report the data, just like a professional environmental engineer/scientist would.” (p. 15)

While gender differences do not particularly interest me, the study performed by Sullivan (et al?) Gender differences in kindergarteners’ robotics and programming achievement was enjoyable to read because I learned about TangibleK a robotics program and the fact that 53 students in three different kindergarten classes went through this six-lesson robotics and programming curriculum with little difference in the outcome. I am far more interested in how the children performed than whether or not there is a gender difference. However, I understand that there are more men—still—in STEM fields than women. How might we counteract whatever is occurring to make this true? Research why it may be happening and get kids of both sexes involved early!  “Children were assessed on four debugging skills in every lesson: (1) recognizing that something is not working, (2)keeping the original goal or changing to an appropriate alternative, (3) having a hypothesis as to the cause of the problem, and (4) attempting to solve the problem.” (p 694)

The CHERP product is worth looking into because “With CHERP there is no such thing as a syntax error. The shape of the interlocking blocks and icons creates a physical syntax that prevents the creation of invalid programs.” (p. 695)

Of interest is how the language “powerful idea” seems to correlate to the big idea that we teach at iTeach as part of the Understanding By Design materials. A powerful idea is “a central concept within a domain that is at once epistemologically and personally useful, interconnected with other disciplines, and has roots in intuitive knowledge that a child has internalized over a long period of time (Papert 1993; Bers et al. 2002). The powerful ideas from computer science addressed in this curriculum include the engineering design process, robotics, control flow by sequencing and by special instructions (loops, branches, and parameters), and sensors.” (p. 696) Going down the rabbit trail of discovery, I loved the way the program was loaded by placing the blocks—actual tangible blocks pushed close to each other—in the camera’s view so the computer can take a photo and send the program tasks to the robot. Genius!

So how did it all turn out? The boys and girls did very similar work. They both had trouble in lessons five and six and success with earlier parts. They both had the highest scores on the same concept in lesson one and difficulty debugging in the last two lessons. Of note is the fact that boys scored significantly better in only two areas: “attaching robotic parts so that they work correctly … knowing when and how to use Ifs.”  (p. 697)

Lessons Learned

Luke Laurie’s students work with Legos while learning the same required curriculum as the regular science class, except he also has them “reflecting on the processes and the discoveries they make along the way.” (p. 14) Also of note, from a pedagogical and learning standpoint is how this article specified another teacher uses Legos to teach both hard skills and soft curriculum. Teacher Chow Miller believes that soft skills are the best take-away. All students should learn “asking questions and defining problems, planning and carrying out investigations, and engaging in argument from evidence.” (p. 16) It is refreshing when seventh and eighth graders are being presented with life skills like these through a robotics program.


I stumbled upon a great article that was a quick, fun read. I’d recommend it to anyone! That generated interest in what else was being done as early as kindergarten. I came across a series of articles done by all the same people using exactly the same research. I was both surprised and amused.  


Gura, M. (2012). Lego Robotics: STEM Sport of the Mind. Learning & Leading With Technology, 40(1), 12-16
Sullivan, A., & Bers, M. (2013). Gender differences in kindergarteners’ robotics and programming achievement. International Journal Of Technology & Design Education, 23(3), 691-702. doi:10.1007/s10798-012-9210-z